Cairo`s roads have long been known for danger and chaos, but a group of local organizations are working to change that. Help is on the way from the Ministry of Interior.

Originally appeared in the March, 2007 issue of Egypt Today Magazine.

From the backseat of a cab headed across Cairo’s 26th of July Bridge, the scene is truly one to behold. Five cars have crowded into three marked lanes. From the side, a sixth car is trying to jockey itself into the row. The car beside you is so close that your driver can reach out the passenger window and offer a cigarette — and sometimes does.

Tourists find it terrifying, but for Cairenes, it’s just another day in what remains one of the world’s toughest commutes.

To say that driving conditions and habits in this country are awful is putting it mildly. You have to wonder: How can drivers stand to travel day after day under these conditions?

“You just do as they do,” says cab driver Gamal Wanas. “You have no choice.”

Not everyone shares that view. There’s a surprising groundswell of individuals and organizations looking to change this view.

David Blanchard knows only too well the hazards that the roads can bring: The non-governmental organization Safe Roads Society was formed three years ago after his daughter Deana was killed by a motorist on the Maadi Corniche.

The problem with that mentality, of course, is [that] to ‘do what they do’ only ends up with the appalling fatality rate that we’re seeing here,” Blanchard says. “So, if everybody has that attitude, if everybody cuts everybody else off, everybody doesn’t drive with their lights on, then nothing will change.”

Egypt had an automobile fatality rate of nine people per 100,000 in 2002, according to the most recent available figures from the World Health Organization. That translates into at least 6,000 people dead on Egyptian roads each year.

Even the WHO admits that’s probably an under-estimate: “In some of the individual studies, all the estimates and projections the WHO has done and some of the multi-country studies which were conducted around 2001, we have a figure of more than 18 per 100,000,” says Dr. Syed Jaffar Hussain, the WHO’s regional advisor for injury and violence prevention. “But we think, looking at the projections and estimates, that it may even be higher, that it may even be higher than 20.”

Disturbing as that may be, the number itself isn’t what is most troubling to the people pressing for change — it’s the fact that officials have used the WHO’s 2002 statistic for the last three years.

“You can’t show improvement until you know exactly what you’re coming from,” says Raymond Cahill, chairman of International Event Partners (IEP), the group that organizes Cairo’s largest annual road safety symposium. “So if the real figures are there and the following year if they go down, at least you know something has changed.”

Road Map for Change

Road safety advocates refer to the ‘Three Es’ — engineering, education and enforcement — when discussing how to tackle the problem.

Inroads have been made from the engineering perspective, which looks at improving infrastructure. The government recently approved a pedestrian tunnel under the Maadi Corniche; according to Blanchard, the Safe Roads Society will manage the project tender process. Also, the General Authority for Roads, Bridges & Land Transport (GARBLT), responsible for highway maintenance and signs, among other things, has been authorized to install more visible and more frequent signage along the Cairo Ring Road. However, it’s still only the beginning of many improvements desperately needed across the country.

When it comes to improving bad driving habits, education and enforcement face even tougher roadblocks. People either don’t know or ignore the rules of the road, and police intervention is minimal. It is not uncommon to see people driving at night without lights on, driving without seatbelts, using mobile phones while behind the wheel, driving against traffic on a one-way street, reversing through traffic, making illegal U-turns and straddling two lanes. Then there are actions that are simply obnoxious, including cutting other drivers off and leaning on the horn, not to mention the physical fights that result from offensive behavior.

Venis Nasr, a mother of a child aged 5 and a 9 month-old infant, thinks the problem lies in lack of punishment. “What’s going to happen to drivers if they do the wrong thing?” she asks. “In North America, you have demerit points and insurance rates — here, there isn’t heavy punishment, so people aren’t afraid and thinking, ‘If I do this wrong, I may not have my license for one year.’ Here, you can just give the officer LE 20 and he’ll give you your license back.”

There’s an old adage: If you can’t appeal to their hearts, appeal to their wallets. Many observers think increasing the fines for driving infractions will help bring about change in the short term. “They should probably look at revising the fine schedule because I would guess that it’s antiquated,” says Blanchard. “People don’t care about LE 5 fines, so maybe they have to be bumped up to LE 100’.”

Another tactic that might grab attention: On-the-spot ticketing as opposed to today’s system, in which nearly every infraction aside from speeding is simply noted in a traffic officer’s ticket book, with drivers paying their accumulated fines at year’s end when they renew their vehicle registrations. The system isn’t only spotty and open to abuse, but fails to target individual drivers.

Ticketing alone may not be the answer, though.

“They can’t ticket everyone into compliance,” says Theo Holtzheuser, a member of the Road Safety Network, an international organization that develops road and traffic safety strategies and programs. “People will start looking at the ticketing as a cash-grab for the local government. They need to explain to drivers, ‘We don’t want to ticket you, we want you to comply with the law.’”

Holtzheuser, who spoke at the 2006 IEP Road Safety and Traffic Management Conference, suggests clamping down on a specific area of Cairo as a starting point for more widespread enforcement of the existing laws. He says that if you make it known that one area of town is monitored more closely than others, drivers will behave better because ticketing is more likely. Once the district is clearly established as a high-ticket area, the program could expand outwards and before long, the entire city would see results.

“You have to make it obvious,” Holtzheuser says. “Don’t be there to trick them into tickets. Make it clear to them where the rules will be enforced heavily so they learn them.”

While higher fines may dissuade drivers from acting like maniacs, they don’t address the root of the problem. Road safety advocates want to drive home why people should care about the way they drive and the far-reaching benefits of abandoning their bad habits.

“We need to tap into the psyche of the drivers in Egypt,” says IEP Managing Director Dan Morrissy. “What’s making them tick, what makes them angry, and what makes it so difficult.”

Bad driving habits often seem ingrained in every citizen, regardless of age, education or social status. Nasr admits that her own behavior on the road wasn’t always perfect.

“I really changed after having kids in my car,” she says, “because I realized that if something happens, maybe I can survive it, but they are too young to have accidents that can affect their lives forever. So if I [make] the decision and see that the decision is even risky by 10 percent, I won’t do it.”

This is one reason IEP has gotten onboard with educational campaigns, in addition to its annual conference. The 2007 Road Safety and Traffic Management conference was originally scheduled for mid-January, but has been moved to April 23–24 to coincide with United Nations Global Road Safety Week.

IEP also helped launch the Arrive Alive campaign heard on Nile FM throughout February. Station DJs urged motorists to call in and talk about safety on the roads and hosted contests where callers answered road safety questions for prizes. Both representatives from Nile FM and IEP called the initiative a success, but Nile FM officials could not confirm the exact number of calls and text messages they received every day. There are plans to move the campaign over to the Arabic Negoom FM, pending the outcome of the English-language radio campaign.

In addition to programs targeting adults, there has been a push to instill safety concepts in children, so future generations don’t take up the dangerous driving habits of their parents. Cahill points to a joint initiative by the ministries of interior and education that teaches elementary school children road safety issues like the importance of wearing seatbelts. Blanchard also notes that an episode of Alam Simsim (Egypt’s version of ‘Sesame Street’) focused on seatbelts and safety.

You can teach the children, but changing bad habits in adults is a more difficult task. Some wonder if bad drivers can change at all.

“If they don’t learn from the accidents they see in the streets, they’ll never learn,” says Nasr. “The Downtown roads are really [crowded] and busy, but there’s less likely to [be] such a major accident. But on the highway, especially the express roads — if they never learn, they’ll never be afraid of them. Then, who knows?”

Costly Crashes

Cooperation between ministries is essential for improving road safety — not just for the drivers themselves, but for the economy.

“On a long-term basis, [people injured in road accidents] are mostly the only bread-winners of each family,” says the WHO’s Hussain. “So, they enter a poverty trap. Then the long-term expenses of rehabilitating them are high. So we highlight this as a public health issue, that’s the way we have been able to engage different sectors and different ministries.”

According to the WHO and World Bank estimates, the combined annual cost of road accidents in the 17 low-and-middle-income countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region is about $7.5 billion (LE 42.7 billion). Out of that total, Egypt accounts for between $1–1.3 billion (LE 5.7 billion to LE 8.5 billion), or about 1–1.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Only Iran has comparable costs within the region. Hussain says that Egypt’s costs are significantly higher than the other low-and-middle-income Eastern Mediterranean countries, which have average road accident costs in the range of $200–500 million.

Critics say that advocacy campaigns and conferences feature mostly foreign intellectuals who have excellent ideas but don’t offer local solutions. “That’s the hardest part of it, really,” says Cahill. “We can bring over all the great ideas from international experts — the problem is that you have to find someone on the ground here that’s willing to take those initiatives on and move them forward.”

Another challenge is getting the recommendations of these conferences implemented at the governmental level. GARBLT Chairman Tarek El-Attar says this is something the Nazif government is taking seriously. “If the government receives the recommendations at the end of the conference, it is their duty to enforce it,” he asserts. “We believe that they are very interested in that.”

Indeed, the Ministry of Interior and GARBLT have given the green light for a special task force to patrol the Cairo Ring Road, which is expected to hit the road in a matter of months. El-Attar is positive that better enforcement will make a difference, particularly when roving patrols start pulling over speeders and unsafe drivers. “When they enter the road and hear the siren, people will start respecting it,” he says. “In a matter of a few months I think you’ll find the discipline is coming that we [lack].”

To help bring the nation’s roads up to standard, GARBLT has also received hundreds of millions in new loans in addition to what officials say is a large influx of new funds from 24-hour toll stations on roads outside the capital. These funds are earmarked for eliminating tricky U-turns by building more frequent, properly labeled turn-off options over the next five years.

Ultimately, cooperation is the key. With so many ministries and advocacy groups working together to solve the same problem, the number of options and ideas can be overwhelming. To make any progress, the message and the solutions need to be clear for all involved.

“What we don’t want is for all these different well-meaning societies like the Rotarians and the Safe Roads Society and everybody else to kind of get scattered,” says Blanchard. “When you can pull together into one coherent, effective force that to me is the future, trying to pull it all together.”

Either way, making the nation’s roads safer may well take a very long time. “When my daughter was killed, I thought ‘there’s an easy solution,’” says Blanchard. “You just put a speed bump here and do this and that and it’ll be solved — but is it just addressing the symptom or is it getting at the root cause? You’re not going to conquer road safety in Cairo in one fell swoop, you’ve got to do it one step at a time.”

Most people, however, would be happy to see any change, regardless of how long it takes. “[The government is] not out of touch,” says Nasr, “but they do think, ‘Oh yeah, there is something wrong here but I’ll get to it tomorrow.’”