BEIRUT: “We don’t know why we have [traffic] accidents in Lebanon ... we simply cannot say what causes [them],” said Kamel Ibrahim, the director of the Lebanese International Road Safety Academy.
The carnage on Lebanon’s roads dominated the front pages of local newspapers earlier this month, after at least 11 people lost their lives in a single weekend.
According to World Health Organization estimates for 2013, there are around 23 road fatalities for every 100,000 people in Lebanon, compared with 11 in the United States and five in the European Union.
Ziad Akl, the founder of the road safety organization YASA International, said there was “no single cause” for these figures.
STATISTICAL SHORTFALLLast week, Interior Minister Raya El Hassan attended a conference with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia on establishing a national observatory to collect data on road accidents.
“At the moment, the statistics are nonexistent in Lebanon,” she said.
“We are trying to build an observatory that would ... allow us to address the challenges at their root,” the minister added.
Yarob Badr, ESCWA’s regional adviser on transport and logistics, told The Daily Star that “statistics in Lebanon are very poor ... there is no scientific or technical investigation.”
The absence of a definitive answer on what causes crashes on Lebanon’s roads makes the job of those trying to prevent them extremely challenging.
“It is difficult to find a solution, when we cannot say whether accidents are caused by distraction, or speeding, or something else,” Ibrahim said.
At present, traffic statistics are based on reports produced by the Internal Security Forces that only provide the most basic information.
“These are approximate analyses that can only be useful to a certain limit,” Ibrahim added.
However, he said that the observatory, which is now in the pipeline, with support from the World Bank and the National Road Safety Council, headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, would help provide the data necessary to “start talking about causes.”
An ISF source played down the lack of useful data, saying it was just one of many barriers to improving traffic safety.
The ISF is often in the spotlight when it comes to monitoring Lebanon’s roads, as its officers are the ones responsible for issuing speeding tickets and controlling vehicles at junctions.
“There are many bodies involved in road safety, but [the Internal Security Forces] is often highlighted in the media, because we are the most visible,” the ISF source said, on condition of anonymity.
The source also complained about the lack of support the force had when implementing traffic regulations, saying, “We’re on the ground - of course we have a responsibility, but we need help.”A NATIONAL STRATEGYAs part of a report on the status of road safety in the region, ESCWA said Lebanon was missing two of five criteria that indicate a good standard of road safety intervention: an observatory to collect crash data and a national road safety strategy.
The ISF source said a “comprehensive strategy would allow us to work effectively” and give all stakeholders, be they ministries, civil society groups or insurers, a clear, implementable action plan.
Such an approach would require the input of expert consultants, the establishment of the observatory and a capacity-building program for the ISF, Ibrahim suggested.
A key element of this strategy would, of course, be the implementation of the traffic law. Passed in 2012, the law was brought into effect in 2015, but is yet to be fully applied.
It is a comprehensive piece of legislation, including articles that stipulate an overhaul of the licensing system, the mandatory wearing of seatbelts and fines for using cellphones at the wheel.
“The traffic law is very good, but there is a lack of enforcement,” Ibrahim said, attributing this in part to a lack of ISF staff and the absence of automated e-ticketing and camera systems.
However, drivers themselves have a part to play, and must not take advantage of what some see as leniency on the part of the authorities.
Lax enforcement makes adhering to the law the driver’s responsibility, “which is lacking among a sizeable portion of the population,” said Ramzi Salameh, the secretary of the National Road Safety Council.
“No one forces you to speed, or to drink and drive,” Lena Gebrane of road safety NGO Kunhadi said, stressing that ultimately, however, the buck stopped with the government. “The [National Road Safety] Council was created four years ago, and they have done nothing.”
In a meeting of the council in June, members pledged to create a comprehensive strategy. Nothing concrete has yet emerged from the specially formed group, which includes representatives from the Transport, Interior and Justice ministries.
“The [council] has been confronted with governmental bureaucratic inertia,” Salameh said.
A staff shortfall was also partly to blame, Ibrahim said, adding that the 2018 freeze on hiring public-sector workers had prevented the council from establishing a solid team. “This means we can’t do research, studies or monitor the roads” to move forward with a strategy, he said.
Though the parties interviewed by The Daily Star could not provide a definitive answer on the principal cause of crashes in Lebanon, they were unified on one thing: Traffic safety does not appear to feature high on the government’s agenda.
“They have a lot of other issues occupying them. Road safety has never been their priority,” Gebrane said. “[It] is not just [a matter of] campaigns and events here and there.”