Living in Chicago, I am accustomed to waiting in traffic, often moving only a few miles an hour at times. Rush hour is a constant. The same can be said about Cairo. I am fascinated by the skill and mastery drivers need to maneuver traffic there. While most major cities around the world experience a similar narrative, Cairo truly is an exceptional case; known for its history and beauty, it is equally known for its never ending and paralyzing congestion.
During my latest visit to the capital, I was amazed by my driver who seemed to take the traffic in stride while displaying a great amount of restraint as car after car cut him off. He seemed more irritated that he was missing an episode of Arab Idol, which he greatly enjoyed. If I thought driving in Chicago was tough, Cairo was a whole different breed.
"Poor maintenance of roadways and the lack of education and awareness for safe driving"
I spent some time studying the scene below my hotel. In a 30-minute span, I observed several motorcycles cutting cars off to the sounds of blaring horns, all the while maneuvering in-between vehicles at a speed far outside my comfort zone. I saw a truck make a 180-degree turn on a busy road just to head in the wrong direction. To top it off, I watched in fascination as a driver got out of his car to express his opinion to another driver who had seemingly just cut him off. I think it is obvious how the driver felt. Yes, this indeed describes the driving scene in Cairo.
Anyone who has been to Egypt will certainly understand my story. Despite what I saw in Cairo, where the traffic flow seemed to work for everyone as if it were natural, a serious problem exists. The country has an atrocious safety record when it comes to driving. The poor maintenance of roadways and the lack of education and awareness for safe driving only serve as contributing factors.
An op-ed piece by The Egyptian Gazette, an English daily in the country, caught my eye. On November 8, the newspaper criticized the government for not doing enough to address the problem. Referring to an incident in Souhag Governorate on November 2, where a bus accident killed 11 students after the driver veered off the highway to avoid an oncoming truck, the newspaper argues that “students continue to loose (sic) their life on roads either for the non-existence of safe means or transportation connecting their towns to their schools and universities because of the bad roads.” With the number of deaths on the roadways, the newspaper adds that “none of the state officials expressed apology or admitted their responsibility for the death of these young people, who were supposed to be Egypt’s future.”
Only three days later, another accident killed at least 18 people, mostly children. A school bush crashed into three vehicles north of Cairo. The cause of the crash appeared to occur after the bus hit a hole in the road, causing a fuel truck to rear-end it.
Photo of car accident in Cairo posted on Twitter
These two incidents both happened after a tragic accident on October 13, when at least thirty people died in a bus crash north of Aswan. And in August, nineteen people were killed when two buses plunged into a canal near Luxor.
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The pattern is depressing but clear; Egypt’s roads are in a state of despair and are in urgent need of repair. Likewise, the culture of disregard for any of the traditional traffic norms and the need for speed are contributing factors.
A government study found that between 2008 and 2012, approximately 100,000 car accidents took place in the country. The World Health Organization reports that at least 12,000 people are killed every year in accidents. This represents a traffic fatality rate of 42 deaths per 100,000 people. The figures are staggering and make Egypt one of the most dangerous countries in the world for driving.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made improving Egypt’s economy a cornerstone of his government’s agenda. The maintenance of the nation’s roadways and highways must be a priority, something the government has thus far all but ignored. In a similar fashion, educating Egyptians on the basic tenants of safe driving must be employed.
"Seatbelt use also remains sporadic"
While there have been improvements, much more needs to be done to improve the culture and safety of drivers. One such development was the introduction of eight speed cameras on a busy Cairo thoroughfare in 2012. The result was a decrease in speed and an increase in the number of issued fines.
Seatbelt use also remains sporadic in a country where in 2010 there were 5.8 million registered vehicles. The World Health Organization said 75% of respondents in a recent survey did not understand the importance of wearing seatbelts.
While an improvement of roadways is needed, this survey indicates that a dramatic change in culture and education are also necessary.
A political cartoon in Al-Ahram on November 8 sums up the grim situation in a dire yet realistic manner. It shows a twisted road encasing and grasping a coffin with blood splattered to its side. It is a telling image. Unfortunately if no improvements are made, there is unlikely to be any decrease in the numbers of fatalities or injuries that occur each year on Egyptian roadways. While drivers certainly need additional education, heavy investment in infrastructure is critical. It could also be a boost for the beleaguered economy by putting Egyptians to work, something that is currently happening with the Suez Canal expansion project.
Egypt doesn’t have to resign itself to this path. The situation needs to be taken more seriously by both the government and people alike – lives and futures certainly depend on it.