The Middle East and North Africa capture the world’s headlines when there’s a war, a terror attack or a bloody government crackdown. But the deaths caused by soldiers and gunmen are tiny compared to the carnage that the region’s residents create getting behind the wheel of a car.
Some 72,000 people died in road accidents in 2007, the last year for which comparative data are available, in the countries ranging from Morocco to Iran, according to data compiled the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO). That’s more than twice the number in the US, even though the Middle East’s population of 390 million that year is just 60% bigger and the number of cars on the road is far smaller.
'Men are responsible for 74% of accidents causing injury'
2 dead, 5 injured in fatal road accident in the South
WHO believes the death toll on the region’s roads is considerably higher – perhaps 120,000 -- because many countries don’t report all their fatalities.
They are very high. There about 32 per 100,000 population and the global
average is about 18.8 and in the European region it’s about 13,” Tami
Toroyan, who is responsible for WHO’s global reporting on road safety,
told The Media Line, citing estimated 2004 numbers. “In the Middle East
it’s a leading cause of death, but it hasn’t received public attention.”
The UN organization is just getting interested in road safety and
published its first report comparing international rates of road
accidents in 2009. WHO is worried that as the world grows wealthier and
more people take to the road, the number of accidents will grow. Seven
years ago, road accidents were the ninth leading cause of death around
the world; by 2030 they could be the fifth, outpacing HIV/AIDS and lung
cancer, according to WHO.
As it launched on May 11 its “Decade of Road Safety,” Toroyan is
compiling new data that will serve as a benchmark for measuring whether
the next decade’s worth of efforts at reducing traffic accidents
The Middle East has the most to gain from any improvement. In 2004, the
last year for which there is figures, it was the sixth-leading cause of
death, three places ahead of war and conflict. Most critically, they
strike the youngest and most productive members of society: Among
children age 5-14 and adults 30-44, it’s the second leading cause of
death. Among young people in between, its No. 1, according toWHO.
It also weighs down on economies, struggling with high rates of
population growth and high unemployment.WHO estimates road deaths costs
the region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, some $7.5 billion
annually. Iran and Jordan have both independently estimated that
accidents lowered gross domestic product by about 2%.
More worryingly, death from roads happen just as frequently among the
Middle East’s rich countries as among its poor, on contrast to much of
the world where money buys better roads and safer cars. Based on WHO’s
estimate for real, rather than reported fatalities, in Saudi Arabia, the
rate is 29 deaths in 2008 per 100,000 population, close to the median
for the region, while in Qatar its 23.7 and in the United Arab Emirates
(UAE), the rate 37.1.
Among poorer countries, the rate is higher – Libyans died in automobile
accidents last year at a rate of 40.5 per 100,000 people, just behind
Egypt’s 41.6. That makes Egypt the second-deadliest place in the world
to drive after the tiny Cook Islands, whose 13,000 people suffered six
deaths in 2008.
“No one follows any rules … There needs to be a traffic officer by every
light in order for people to abide by the law,” Joseph Fahim, an editor
with the Daily News Egypt, said about his fellow drivers in Cairo in an
interview with The Media Line. “We don’t have the concept of people
sticking to the lanes.”
Some 40% of the country lives on less than $2 a day and the number of
drivers is 4.3 million in a population of close to 80 million. But some
17 million people are squeezed into greater Cairo, creating huge traffic
jams and masses of pedestrians vulnerable to being hit by a car. Motor
scooters and other small vehicles that ill the city’s streets are more
risk laden than sedans and trucks. Once you leave the “nightmare” of
Cairo even into the suburbs, driving is safer.
Why can’t the Middle East learn to drive?
The WHO’s Toroyan attributes the problem to several factors. One is the
rapid pace of car usage over the last decades which has in many places
outpaced the development of infrastructure. The region’s population is
very young, and young drivers all around the world are the worst. The
ban on alcohol by Islam, by far the predominant faith of the region,
creates problems, as well.
“A lot of countries in the Middle East don’t have drunk-driving laws
because alcohol is officially banned,” she said. In addition, road
safety takes back seat to other health issues. “In a lot of countries
there has been a lack of ownership of the issue. It falls between the
However, Dubai, with one of the world’s highest auto death tools, is
cracking down on bad driving. Police estimate that road deaths increased
60% between 1998 and 2007 before starting to head downwards as
authorities got tough on bad driving. Still a fender-bender occurred
about every three minutes in the tiny emirate.
Last year, police in Dubai, one of the UAE’s constituent emirates,
embarked on a campaign to reduce the number of road fatalities to zero
per 100,000 people by 2020. Police Chief Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim
says he wants to make Dubai roads among the safest in the world through a
campaign of carrots, sticks and education.
Police unveiled a plan on Monday to reward good drivers with “white
points” that allow them to remove minor violations from the driving
record. For the incorrigible, police have installed a system that links
speed cameras, radar guns and traffic-light cameras with roaming police
vehicles. Within minutes of being identified, speeders and other
violators of traffic laws can expect to be pulled over by a patrol car.
For the next generation, the Roads and Transport Authority has begun a
program of lectures and promotional literature to teach about the
dangers of speeding and the need to wear seat belts.
“We aim to achieve zero fatalities from road accidents by 2020; this is
no doubt an ambitious target," said Major General Saif Al Zafein,
director-general of Dubai Traffic Police.David E. Miller contributed to this story.