Starting last December, I embarked on a series of editorials on “luggage we carry into 2020”. They tackled issues and problems that were never resolved in 2019, and thus await action in 2020. Today I broach a serious problem that we carry into 2020, one that was not merely unresolved in 2019 but that has never been adequately challenged for decades on end. I refer to the traffic problem in Egypt, which is now one of our chronic pains. Year in year out we have been aspiring for the hand of reform to impose and develop discipline on our streets, but this was not to be.
In my editorial of last week, dated 19 January 2020, I broached the issue of the chaos inflicted on Egypt’s streets by tuk tuks and minivans, but they are by no means solely responsible for the disarray in our street. In fact, the unruly behaviour of which drivers of tuk tuks and minivans are accused is not a monopoly by them, but extends to drivers of all sorts of vehicles in Egypt: private vehicles, taxis, mass transport vehicles, and different-sized trucks.
True, Egyptian road networks and roads have undergone a huge quality leap in recent years, especially those in and around Cairo and major Egyptian towns, inter-governorate roads, and highways that cross into remote areas. However, each day comes with more than its fair share of horrendous road accidents, raising the danger threshold on our roads. So the fact remains that road safety is not only subject to road specifications, but to numerous other factors, such as vehicle fitness, driver aptitude and behaviour, and law enforcement. Traffic rules are meaningless if not coupled with vigilant, rigorously enforced road discipline. Violations to traffic lights, signposts, speed limits, and all road discipline should be effectively monitored, and tracked. Violators should be taken to account and penalised. Otherwise, traffic codes and laws would be no more than ink on paper, ineffective and toothless, allowing violators to get away with their deeds scot-free. A poorly enforced law is equal to no law at all.
Sadly, driving skills and ethics are plummeting. Most drivers behave as though they are free to do as they please, jeopardising their own safety and that of passengers and pedestrians. Taking to the road has become a high-risk activity, an adventure and a gamble. Ironically, foreigners visiting Egypt are impressed by Egyptian drivers’ remarkable skill to anticipate the driving violations expected from fellow drivers, and swiftly avert any damage. This is not so commendable; it is but evidence of the prevalent chaos and unruliness drivers or pedestrians have become inured to. They frequently manage to escape unharmed but it is obvious that trying their luck may be one time too much.
Some half-a-century ago, Egyptians who travelled to the western world used to marvel at the disciplined traffic, driving ethics and vigilance of the law. Today, Arab countries too boast impeccable road networks, exemplary driving and rigorous vigilant monitoring systems. So why have we in Egypt alone failed par excellence to have a working, efficient traffic system? And what can we do to bring to heel the pandemonium on our roads that severely disfigures any claim we have over civilisational heritage, and undermines all plans for modernisation and development? The situation is such that the safest means of transport in Egypt are those that run on rails not roads: the railway trains and the metro in Cairo. This despite the train accidents that took place during recent years, which we hope would not recur now that arduous efforts are being exerted to reform and develop Egypt’s railway facilities.
In order to reform traffic on the Egyptian street, do we need to reconsider the entire institution in charge? Do we need to look into privatising the traffic department? Is it time to separate the traffic authority from the security authority, both of which are under the Ministry of Interior? The security authority should carry on as an Interior Ministry force that imposes safety and security, prevents crime, and pursues law violators. But I believe that traffic should be managed by a separate apparatus that solely focuses on disciplining and controlling roads, enforcing traffic codes and rules, and purging streets of chaos and unruliness. It has become a very urgent need to put an end to the administrative flabbiness of our traffic authority. This authority has abandoned its main role of rigorously enforcing discipline to avert danger and chaos, and opted for the role of the hunter who catches the violator red-handed to penalise him or her. Traffic officers use surprise ambushes on the road to suddenly pounce and grab a ‘prey’. But the violator prey is otherwise free to recklessly wreak havoc on the road until the hunter again pounces and catches it. Sadly, the result of such tactics has been restricted to temporary deterrence but no long term reform.
Having now tackled the symptoms of our chronic traffic problem and how to deal with it, I will in an upcoming editorial broach the forms of road chaos in our country, the time bombs set to explode any day, any hour, any second.
29 January 2020