Lost highway: Death on the road in Egypt

Zeinab El-Gundy , Thursday 24 Apr 2014

With traffic related deaths one of the leading causes of death in Egypt, Ahram Online looks at some of the factors behind the accidents, from highway quality to speeding drivers

(Photo: Al-Ahram)

In the past eight weeks, not less than 48 people have been killed in road accidents in Egypt, with hundreds injured. The victims were varied – Egyptians and foreigners, citizens and tourists, all from different backgrounds and classes. What they had in common: the same grim fate.

Two accidents made the headlines in the past week. A school bus flipped over on the 6 October City highway due to excessive speed, killing a student and injuring four others, who remain in critical condition. The second accident was similar – yet another bus flipped over, this time in the Red Sea governorate, with four killed and 47 injured.

International and local reports estimate that Egypt leads the Middle East when it comes to road accidents and related deaths. With an average of 12,000 people killed annually according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), road accidents are considered one of the main causes of death in Egypt.

Earlier this month, the ministries of interior and transportation released a report about road accidents in Egypt from 2008 to 2012. According to the statistics, there were 100,000 car accidents in that period, with 33,000 killed and another 150,000 injured. Not less than 125,000 cars were destroyed.

Another report published at the same time by the interior ministry's highway research department said that human error has been responsible for 76 percent of all traffic accidents since 2006. Vehicle conditions accounted for just over 20 percent of accidents, while weather and road conditions claimed about 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

A need for speed

"Human error is the main cause of car accidents in Egypt, especially speed," said Dr. Hassan Mahdy, a professor of traffic and road engineering at Ain Shams University.

He points to truck drivers as causing more accidents in Egypt than any other category of driver.

Indeed, heavy trucks cause most of the accidents in Egypt – 40 percent of them, according to the report from the ministries of interior and transportation. Private vehicles cause 33 percent of accidents, followed by microbuses (9 percent) and buses (7 percent).

The report further stressed that speeding was responsible for most accidents.

"It is not a big secret that many of those drivers drive under influence of narcotics because they believe that drugs will make them more active and awake, as driving trucks for long distances needs a lot of effort," Mahdy said.

From his point of view, other human factors also contribute to an increase in the rate of car accidents – education level, illiteracy and knowledge of traffic laws.

"Many drivers in Egypt ignore traffic laws and signs, not to mention that some of them can't read or write, like many truck drivers, for instance," he said."If we want to reduce the rate of accidents, then we have to start changing the culture of the citizen when it comes to traffic."

The condition of a vehicle is another important element to consider.

"Recently we found out that many drivers are using cars with cheap types as well as brakes, not to mention that there are old cars and vehicles on the road that shouldn't be there in the first place," he said.

Bad roads, more deaths

Despite road conditions only contributing to around 2 percent of accidents in Egypt, poor maintenance and the substandard quality of the country's highways is still responsible for the rate of accidents going up.

Half of the road networks in Egypt qualify as poor and suffer from a lack of maintenance, according to the road research centre within the ministry of interior's traffic department.

Speaking at a conference on international road safety in Cairo last March, Transportation Minister Ibrahim El-Demery said that Egypt's fatal traffic chaos can only be solved by building an entirely new road and highway network system.

It's not just speed and poor highways that causes deaths, though. Bad weather is also to blame at times. In early March, the Sohag-Red Sea highway was closed after a landslide following bad weather conditions and heavy rain.

An official in the traffic accident department at the General Authority for Roads and Highways told Ahram Online that a highway's level of safety is gauged after a final report is issued in order to determine if the number of deaths is being caused by the highway itself or human error.

Half of Egypt’s road and highway networks are operated and maintained by the General Authority for Roads and Bridges, under the transportation ministry. According to an official in the authority, the other half of the network is maintained by the army or by governorates, municipalities or local councils.

The official told Ahram Online that only last February the authority began to start a new system for periodic maintenance on roads and highways. The system is currently in its earliest test phase, with experts and engineers undergoing training.

Mahdy, the traffic professor, says that there is a hierarchical system of quality when it comes to roads and highways in Egypt. At the top are those constructed by the General Authority. Then comes the roads built by governorates, followed by those from municipalities.

Roads between villages and towns and between governorates are lower in quality than main highways like the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, Mahdy added.

Still, the Cairo-Alexandria desert road has had more accidents than any other in the country, according to the government's traffic accident department.

The highway is currently being operated and maintained by the army, which will continue to do so for the next 50 years.

Another road with a high rate of accidents is the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road, which passes through the Nile Delta.

Many avoid it for fear of accidents, often caused by the high number of heavy trucks transporting goods between governorates, as well as speeding, of course, and the occasional instance of fog.


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