Stoned at the wheel: Egypt's drug driving crisis

Amr Kotb, Thursday 13 Nov 2014

Are new government restrictions the best way to tackle Egypt's drug driving problem?

Aftermath of the Beheira accident, November 2014(Photo: Al-Ahram)

Just over a week ago, a schoolbus carrying teenagers collided with a truck and a private car in the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira.

The accident claimed the lives of 18 students whose bodies were burned in the collision’s flames.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the truck driver tested positive for hashish (cannabis).

He is not alone. A recent government investigation of 1,800 truck and microbus drivers found that 200 of them admitted to regular usage of drugs during working hours.

After what happened in Beheira, the government took swift action, creating a new specialised court circuit for traffic violations and began an amendment process to tighten its traffic laws.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but it appears that the government seeks to jack up fines and prison time associated with driving under the influence of drugs. There is also talk of restricting truck driver’s operations to the hours of 11pm to 6am.

But is the solution really that simple? Why are these drivers using drugs anyway?

One owner of a truck-driving company based in Cairo says the answer is complicated.

“Most of the drivers taking drugs on their routes don’t want to be bothered with wasting their time to rest or sleep, so the drugs allow them to bypass this and keep driving,” he said.

The company owner also attributes drug usage to the pressure his fellow owners put on drivers, as many of them prioritise low costs and delivery time over everything else.

“I know a lot of owners that are obsessed with keeping their fleet as small as possible,” he said, explaining that his peers would be happy to just use one vehicle to complete all routes to avoid the cost of renting additional trucks. This leads them to turn a blind eye to drug use.

Twenty-five year old Cairo-based microbus driver, Mohamed Samir, admits that when it comes to the pressure to make trips as fast as possible, transporting people isn’t much different from transporting cargo.

“I don’t use drugs but I know a lot of drivers that use uppers like Tramadol to get the energy boost necessary to meet demand,” he said.

Talaat Sayed, 36, a driver for Nestle ice cream, acknowledges the difficult working conditions drivers face.

"Although I don't face much pressure to speed up my deliveries, I spend ten hours a day, every day, driving, and I'd say my peers working for similar corporations are about the same," he says.

Sayed explained that he and drivers working at similar international corporations typically get paid LE1,800 - 2,000 per month (about $255 - $285), just a few hundred higher than Egypt's minimum wage of LE1,200 ($170) per month.

"I work for a well-known company that doesn't put a lot of pressure on me and I feel like the routes are manageable," Sayed said, adding that "guys bringing vegetables and fruit up to Cairo from the south though, are probably working something like 20 hours a day." 

Less fortunate drivers like those transporting produce are paid lower rates, and face a bit more pressure when it comes to the speed of deliveries.

Still others say drug usage is tied more to the culture of the drivers  than it the logistics of the job.

Mostafa Darwish, director of the transportation authority, says that most truck drivers hail from a “drug culture” as a function of their social class.

People who drive trucks are typically illiterate and uneducated, their culture is what makes them think that taking this stuff will keep them awake,” he says.

“Of course, not all of them think this way, many are very decent people, but most have this understanding,” he adds as a disclaimer

Whether a result of pressure or class, there is no question that this is a serious issue. How can citizens be sure that these new restrictions will put a stop to zombies getting behind the wheel?

Darwish spoke to the power of fear, explaining that the government “wants to scare people into abiding by the law.”

“If we catch someone doing this stuff we’re going to come down hard, we’re going to swipe their licenses, we’re going to throw them in jail for 3-7 years,” he said.

Driver’s reactions to the decisions are mixed.

Mostafa, a 32-year-old truck driver based in Helwan, feels the new rules do not address the actual causes of accidents.

“We don’t need new laws that make it harder to do our jobs,” he said, “poorly maintained roads are much more responsible for accidents than drug use is.”

“I would love to be able to make my trips during the day,” Mostafa says, “the only reason I go at night is because I don’t have to worry as much about people driving the opposite direction down one way streets and breaking other laws as a result of terrible road conditions.”

Samir is in favour of the new restriction in theory.

“So what if there’s a lot of pressure to take people and cargo places, is this the fault of those who die when a drugged-up driver runs them over?” he asked.

“It’s a great idea but if people getting busted with pills can get off with a bribe, than it serves no purpose,” he added.

As many drivers and business owners await government decisions, others, like the Cairo-based owner of the truck driving company, speak to the power of leadership.

“I know for a fact that none of the people working for me use drugs,” he says.

“You have to keep an open and conversational relationship with your employees, let them know that the quality of their work takes priority over the speed of it. I always encourage my drivers to take breaks and even spend the night at locations along their routes because nothing is worth an accident like what happened in Beheira last week.”

As the government continues to draft up its fear-infused strategy, perhaps drivers can beat them to the punch with a simple change in mindset.

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