BEIRUT: In front of the main entrance of a central Beirut school, 15-year-old George is very proud to show he can drive his parents’ big SUV. The driving is far from being smooth, but George insists he knows how to do it.
“My dad taught me in the mountain,” he says. But George, who lives in Beirut, admits his father would probably not be very happy if he learned that when they’re not at home, he sometimes “borrows” his parents’ car to go race with his friends in Ouzai, in the capital’s southern suburbs.
“He can barely touch the pedals because he’s very short,” one of his friends laughs.
Another student, 14-year-old Abed, says he often steals his grandmother’s car “when she’s sleeping between 4 and 5,” to take his friends for a ride.
“We raced together and I bet him,” he says, pointing at George, who adds they “never got into an accident because we know how to drive.”
Abed, forgetting for a second he’s only 14, argues he should be allowed to drive as “in America they drive at 16.”
He says he’s only been caught once by friends of his parents, and adds with a laugh that he got away with it by swearing, “I won’t do it again.”
George and Abed’s friends, who first said they just drove with their parents outside Beirut “to learn,” start opening up and admit they’ve also been driving without their parents knowing.
“When my parents travel and leave the keys, I take the car,” 15-year-old Michael says.
They all insist they just drive “sometimes, for the fun.”
“It’s not actually all that bad, we go for half an hour to have fun, that’s it,” says George.
But at road safety organization YASA, Joe Daccache is not laughing. Underage driving, he says, is a “huge problem” in the country.
He says 60 percent of road victims are 15 to 25 years old, and that out of this percentage, 70 percent are responsible for causing the accident.
“They tend to drive faster and take more risks, they’re not well experienced, and are often driving without a license or are underage,” he explains.
Daccache says it is very difficult to accurately estimate the number of underage drivers involved in accidents because most of the time, “a phone call is made to the parents, who come to the scene, take the place of the child and say they were the one driving.”
Parents are by law responsible if a minor is found responsible for causing an accident, and could even face a jail sentence in serious cases, for which it may be more complicated for adults to assume responsibility for the accident.
Most of the time, Daccache explains, the other driver involved in an accident goes along with the trick as insurance companies won’t cover the charges if a minor is responsible. The other driver would have to wait for the case to go to court to get compensation, meaning waiting for a very long period of time to be reimbursed.
“If there is only material damage [both parties] would choose to make some kind of bargain,” Daccache says.
That’s why, he explains, “officially, there is a very small number of cases.”
But as Daccache insists, “what underage drivers have to always keep in mind is that even if they’re not responsible [for an accident] they would lose their rights, simply because they’re minors and are not legally allowed to drive. That’s what we tell them during our awareness campaigns [at schools],” he says.
George, Abed and their friends insist that though their parents taught them to drive, they are not aware of their “borrowing sessions.” But Daccache strongly believes that parents are responsible.
He says many parents do let their children drive or are “not careful enough not to let them steal [the car].”
However, Daccache stresses that the government also holds a major share of the responsibility. As for most issues related to road safety though, he says that the main problem is lack of law enforcement.
“Personally, I haven’t been asked for my driving license in at least 10 years. How can we enforce the law with minors?” he asks, believing that minors driving without a license are never stopped and controlled.
He regrets that the large amount of checkpoints in the country are used for “all types of crimes” but not for controlling drivers. “Sometimes they check the papers of the cars but it’s very rare that they ask about driving licenses,” he says.
During a conference on road safety last week, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s representative Joseph Dwaihy said his ministry was well aware of the problem and called for “all to cooperate,” and stressed that parents should be involved.
“It starts in homes, where families should not allow their children to drive cars before receiving a driving license,” he says.
Daccache couldn’t agree more, and concludes: “Parents need to talk to their children about the law, about what’s right or wrong … and we need law enforcement for everyone, every time. This is a major issue.”