BEIRUT: Most serious road accidents are caused by speeding and drunk driving, according to the head of the Traffic Experts’ Association, Najib Shoufani, who told The Daily Star that police need to enforce traffic laws if accidents are to be reduced.
In Lebanon, traffic experts are in charge of determining who is at fault in road accidents. The experts – there are 1,400 working in the country – go to accident sites to assess responsibility and vehicle damage, a role that’s played in many other countries by the police.
Here, the police only come to an accident if there is an injury or death. Instead, when asked, insurance companies must provide their clients with a list of traffic experts, and will not cover the costs of a crash if an expert isn’t called.
As the head of a group of workers who routinely witness the aftermath of road accidents, Shoufani is uniquely placed to talk about the problem of accidents in the country.
In 2010, the association recorded 350,000 accidents. Shoufani said this figure has already been reached in 2011. Fifty-five percent of those injured or killed in road accidents are in cars, 20 percent are on motorcycles, 15 percent are pedestrians, and 10 percent are in buses or trucks.
Shoufani said 60 percent of the country’s accidents occur in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, as these regions have more cars than other regions.
Just over half of Lebanon’s 950,000 cars are uninsured, but even uninsured drivers tend to call traffic experts after an accident. “An expert comes in 90 percent of accident cases,” Shoufani said.
“Accidents are increasing,” said Shoufani, because “the number of cars are increasing, and people don’t follow traffic laws.” He said the vast majority of serious accidents are caused by speeding and alcohol consumption, and often occur on major roads and highways. This past Sunday, said Shoufani, 32 people were injured and two were killed in road accidents –these casualties were all linked either to speeding or alcohol.
Shoufani also named poor infrastructure as a major factor in crashes, pointing to a lack of street lights, signs, side barriers on mountain roads, and separation barriers on main highways.
“People drive in the mountains, and sometimes there is fog and rain. There are no signs warning of drop-offs of roadsides, nor are there barriers on the sides of roads.”
He added that contrary to common belief, accidents don’t increase with bad weather: “People think most of accidents happen in the winter, but in fact they mostly happen in July and August ... because that is when a lot of people leave the city and go to the mountains.
“People drive fast and they pass each other on mountain roads,” he said, again noting the lack of roadside barriers.
Even when there are signs, Shoufani said many drivers don’t respect them. Others don’t know what they mean. “Our driving tests are not appropriate ... They are just about ‘go this way, come back,’” he said, adding that a section in the traffic law that requires test-takers to learn about and practice using road signs is not applied.
He said the implementation of radars has reduced major accidents on main thoroughfares, but that the radar has not been installed everywhere.
The victims of most serious accidents, Shoufani said, are between the ages of 18 and 25. “We have a problem with young drivers who have no experience ... older people have more experience and are more responsible.”
He also blamed a lack of public transportation for car crashes, commenting that “all 18-year-old university students have cars.”
“If we had a good public transport system people would use it, but because we don’t, everyone has a car,” Shoufani continued, adding that 100,000 new cars are insured every year.
Shoufani recommends that police know and enforce the law. He also said the country needs more traffic police, as there are currently “only 1,500 [officers] in the country,” who only work during the day. “At night there are no traffic police in the streets ... from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. there is no one, because there are not enough of them.”
Breathalyzers would help tackle the drunk-driving problem, Shoufani said. “Most big accidents happen Saturday night [when] people go out and get drunk,” he said, adding that police control of this drinking should increase, especially on weekends near bars and restaurants.
He also stressed the need for seatbelt use, estimating that only 10 to 15 percent of people now use them. Another dangerous habit he warned, was the practice of children riding in the front passenger seat: “If accidents occur, children can suffocate in the airbag.”
In general, Shoufani said, children “shouldn’t be in the front seat before they are 12.”