The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 28/3/3012
Anyone who has ever stepped foot outside their apartment or villa knows that Saudi Arabia is the most dangerous place to drive a car or walk on the street.
There is so much wrong with the Kingdom’s traffic system and traffic laws that when municipal traffic departments establish new laws one must wonder whether they are serious about their priorities.
It’s with this in mind that that I learned that Makkah’s traffic department has decided that expatriates should own no more than two old cars. The law does not apply to Saudis.
The traffic department is a little vague about what it deems as an old and worn-out car, although the agency is apparently on a hunt to track them down, take them away and, I guess, destroy them. This will place somewhat of a burden on the poor — the people who actually drive old cars — who consider the automobile a lifeline. Two old cars may be enough, but many expats buy and sell such cars to earn a living. Walking, obviously, is out of the question.
The Ministry of Interior’s General Traffic Department has done some good things in the past few years to increase traffic safety. Saher is a major boon, keeping people alive. The effect of cameras at intersection has been instantaneous as most motorists seem to respect more or less traffic lights these days.
But beyond Saher, I am hard-pressed to see any significant changes into how to increase traffic safety no matter how vigorously we celebrate Traffic Safety Week and teach children traffic safety laws. While I understand that old cars may pose a hazard, should it really be a priority? If a 20-year-old car is well maintained with good tires, good brakes, working headlamps and taillamps, bumpers and glass what does its age matter?
If it’s the old rolling wrecks that traffic departments are worried about, then perhaps they should consider the thousands of big rig diesel trucks traveling along Ring Road in Jeddah. I was on my way to the airport the other night and took notice of the condition of many of these big trucks.
Many trucks were traveling on worn tires, the headlamps were dim and the taillamps often flickered off and on, or several were just working. A particularly dangerous aspect of these trucks is the lack of mud flaps behind the rear tires. On a road notoriously for debris and rocks strewn about, a rear tire can kick up a baseball-size rock and shoot it through a windshield. In addition to land-jumping and speeding, these big trucks are 10,000 pounds of steel capable of killing and maiming.
We permit these trucks to travel the Kingdom’s highways without the benefit of routine safety inspections, although the law is specific about how big trucks should operate. No truck can be operated without covering or properly wrapping loads. And each vehicle, whether an automobile, light-duty truck or tractor-trailer rig, can be on the road without “the necessary equipment such as brakes, lights, or their equivalent, putting public safety at risk.”
Owners risk having their vehicle impounded. While I am certain that traffic officers do everything they can to keep unsafe vehicles off the road, few people can argue that there is not an abundance of dangerous big rigs.
According to the Ministry of Interior, traffic accidents in 2010 resulted in SR 13 billion of property losses. In 2009, there were 485,931 traffic accidents that killed 6,458 people. That’s about 13 deaths per 1,000 accidents. In 2012, 19 people died each day in traffic accidents, that’s up from 18 in 2009. In addition, there are 9 million traffic violations committed annually by motorists.
I don’t begrudge Makkah’s attempt to rid its streets of old, unsafe cars, although exempting Saudis from the new law makes no sense and reeks of unfair treatment. But I begrudge the system for allowing old, unsafe big trucks on the road. We seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture. The highways belong to the big trucks, and cars are at their mercy as drivers practice unsafe driving habits. Add the insult of an unsafe, ill-maintained diesel rig that plies the roadways with impunity and we have vehicles that pose much greater threats to the public than a 20-year-old Toyota Corolla.