Road safety falls off the radar on long Lebanese highways

There was one brief moment of hope for road safety in Lebanon in 2010, writes Michael Karam. Unfortunately the country failed to capitalise on potential long-term gains.

Lebanese road safety awareness has some way to go. Ramzi Haidar / AFP
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I was driving to the north of Lebanon the other week, doing 140kph on a road on which the speed limit is now meant to be 100kph. I say "is now" because until November 2010, there really was no speed limit in Lebanon. There is still no formal highway code, and basic road traffic signs are more suggestions than imperatives. The overarching guidance has always been: "Try not to crash."

There are no official figures, but knowledgeable people assure me that the direct cost to the healthcare and insurance industries of road accidents must be significant. Indirectly, the impact on Lebanon's brand equity and its attractiveness to foreign visitors is equally big.

There was one brief moment of hope. In the autumn of 2010, Ziad Baroud, the interior minister at the time, who had become popular for his "clean" image and attempts at improving civil rights, unveiled Lebanon's first speed traps.

The move was typical of Mr Baroud, a lawyer and civil society activist in a previous life and a man young enough to understand the issues that many Lebanese had begun to care about. His promise that our police would be sitting by the side of the road waiting to catch speeding motorists gave us a whiff of the Lebanon we wanted. What next? Better roads, a decent public transport system, reduced vehicle pollution? All would indeed be a boost for tourism and other foreign investment

The new rules were basic. The speed limit was 100kph for highways and 50kph for other roads, and the speeding fines ranged from US$33 (Dh121) to $3,300. Those who thought they might have been caught could access a website for details of their penalty.

Anyway, so there I was doing 140 and I was certainly not the fastest on the road. I was passed by at least two BMWs (always BMWs) and an SUV, while a menacing-looking lorry had been a firm fixture in my rear-view mirror all the way from Byblos. Surely, we had all been "pinged", but I found nothing to suggest I had been caught.

Were the police not bothering now that Mr Baroud had moved on? "A ticket takes about five months to process," a friend said, "and yes, they are still being issued. I should know. I've had about five so far. Maybe you just got lucky."

Maybe. But the reality is that the situation on Lebanon's roads has not improved if drivers - myself included - are still breaking the speed limit with cheerful indifference. Where were the exasperated conversations about speed traps at Beirut dinner parties? Surely, along with Beirut property prices, they should have become a major irritation.

According to Kunhadi, a road safety non-governmental organisation (NGO), in January last year, a little more than one month after the introduction of the radars, accidents had indeed dropped by nearly 30 per cent year on year. They fell by nearly 20 per cent in February, but by April the year-on-year figures began to level out, with a mere 1.2 per cent drop. By July, accidents had risen by 20 per cent and by a whopping 40 per cent by December.

So what's going wrong? The radars are still operating and people are being fined, but there clearly has been no attempt to build on any successes and improve overall awareness. Conservative estimates have put the revenue from fines at about $15 million. Surely the money, instead of heading into the treasury, should be used to finance awareness training, road safety TV ads and even grants to NGOs.

Marwan Charbel, Mr Baroud's successor, is a former security officer of the old school and reportedly close to the Syrian regime. One suspects his ministerial priorities are more muscular than those championed by his predecessor.

And in the absence of modern civil servants, the fabric of Lebanon's public sector is too shot through with holes, blighted by institutional amnesia and pockmarked with incompetence to sustain any system. When Mr Baroud left, he took his work with him.

Michael Karam is associate editor in chief of Executive, a Lebanese regional business magazine