handling even worse than their firearms handling.
Cars trump guns as cause of death in Middle East
By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
As UN begins its Decade of Road Safety, region has its work cut out
for it; road deaths in Middle East occur twice as often as in US.
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.
WHO believes the death toll on the region's roads is considerably
higher – perhaps 120,000 -- because many countries don't report all
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
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
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,
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.