Health and safety unresolved issues for Lebanese

Sadly, the notion of safe driving in the Arab world – respecting the speed limit, staying in the lane, overtaking safely, parking properly, using the indicator correctly, the list is endless – is largely absent.

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A chunk of the 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London created to commemorate every one of the British and Commonwealth soldiers cut down on the battlefields of the Great War are to go on show across Britain as of tomorrow. It’s part of a four-year tour funded by £500,000 (Dh2.9 million) in fines paid by UK banks in the wake of the Libor rate-rigging scandal.

All very neat and tidy don’t you think? And on a moral level very apt, given the whole “greed versus sacrifice” theme it throws up in this emotive centenary year. Proceeds from the sale of the vast majority of the poppies (£25 each, if you are interested) will go to the UK’s various military charities, an initiative into which the British public has bought into big time.

My sister, not normally given to such bouts of jingoism, wanted to drag me off to the Tower to see them, and I have been told by those who have made the pilgrimage to Tower Bridge that is indeed a very moving display.

Why are there not similar initiatives in Lebanon, where we could use more awareness and funding to reduce the slaughter on our roads where the cream of our own young generation is being mown down on a daily basis? It is a battle that costs nearly 500 lives and 3,500 injuries each year. It is a shocking figure given the size of the population and I am told it may be even higher.

Kunhadi, the Lebanese road safety NGO founded by the father of Hady Gebran, who at 18 died in a car accident in the early hours of Easter Sunday, 2006, has led the way in raising awareness, but the organisation remains nothing more than a worthy cause in that it has no “teeth”. With funding from traffic violations – potentially the treasury’s biggest cash cow – it could lead the way by not only creating a national highway code, but also spearheading effective campaigns to curb deadly habits such as drink driving and texting while at the wheel.

Sadly, the notion of safe driving in the Arab world – respecting the speed limit, staying in the lane, overtaking safely, parking properly, using the indicator correctly, not driving un-roadworthy and dangerous cars, the list is endless – is largely absent. The police break the law more than they enforce it. Too many young Lebanese people never make it home alive after a Friday or Saturday night out.

Another simmering health crisis that as far back as 2000 was flagged as a potential cost to health care is smoking-related diseases. But despite a law enacted in September 2012 that banned sparking up in offices, shops, bars, restaurants and clubs, no one seems to be paying much attention and that includes many of the MPs who passed the bill. Many of Beirut’s restaurants and bars, which at the time claimed that around US$50 million worth of business and about 2,500 jobs would be lost as a result of the ban, have given up trying to enforce the law.

If, like driving fines, the revenues from establishments that disregard the law were channelled into medical research and more awareness campaigns in schools and universities and the media, those asked to respect the law might be more amenable to the idea. One major reason why the law is not enforced is that most Lebanese assume the fines simply go into the pocket of the public official handing it. And given Lebanon’s appalling culture of corruption, who can blame them?

Of course this is all pie in the sky. There has to exist a mindset among the political class, religious leaders and the legal authorities to respect, uphold and enforce the law before we can even discuss ways to reinvest any penalties. In fact, any disbursement of funds will probably need to be a public-private joint venture audited by NGOs. The state needs generations to rebuild transparent institutions.

Why not also plough similar monies into solving Lebanon’s dire annual water shortage or repairing the national grid? The state generates money that can be spent on creating a better society, while the Lebanese learn to be better citizens.

It’s working in Britain.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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