Lebanon Tightens Its Grip on Traffic Violators

by VR Sreeraman on Oct 22 2008 6:18 PM

Something of a revolution is taking place on Lebanon's notoriously dangerous roads. Drivers are beginning to stop at red lights, to wear seat belts and no longer have their cell phones glued to their ears.

All thanks to a crackdown ordered by the country's new no-holds-barred Interior Minister Ziad Baroud who has unleashed a small army of traffic cops to impose law and order in a country where rules appear made to be broken.

"The laws concerning seat belts, cell phone use, speed, wearing a helmet while driving a motorbike and respecting traffic lights have been on the books for years," said Major Hanna Laham, in charge of traffic in one Beirut district.

"But in view of the high number of accidents we have started applying them more strictly."

According to police figures, some 500 people die and more than 6,000 are injured annually in traffic-related accidents in Lebanon, which has a population of four million.

Ziad Akl, founder of the Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA), an organisation that lobbies for road safety, said the true fatality rate is closer to 870 a year as authorities don't keep count of people who die of their injuries several days after a car crash.

"The numbers have been going up steadily because of the chaotic situation in the country for the past three years which is also reflected on the roads," Akl told AFP, referring to political unrest which largely paralysed the government until the election of a new president in May.

"We may not have the highest number of road deaths in the world but what is worse in Lebanon is that anyone can purchase a driver's licence without even learning how to drive," he added.

"It's basically a free-for-all and you have thousands of unqualified drivers on the roads."

It is not uncommon, for example, to see a Lebanese driver going against traffic or backing up on a highway. Stop signs, one-way streets, pedestrian crossings, and red lights are often ignored.

Children rarely use seat belts and often sit on a parent's lap in the front seat or on the driver's lap.

One guidebook warns even seasoned drivers to beware when behind the wheel in Lebanon where it said driving "should be considered an extreme activity".

Laham however said that since the traffic crackdown began in mid-September the number of offences has gone down significantly.

The fine is 50,000 Lebanese pounds (33 dollars) for using a cell phone, speeding or running a red light and 35,000 pounds for failing to use a seat belt.

"We used to give out up to 1,300 tickets a day in the Beirut area and now we are giving out about 600," Laham said.

The new measures have been greeted warmly for the most part even though for many old habits die hard.

"Slowly people will get used to law and order," said Rozelle Azzam, as a police officer issued her a ticket for not wearing her seat belt. "The Lebanese need to be educated because they have been living in chaos.

"Even I will probably keep talking on my cell phone while driving until I get a ticket."

Several drivers on a recent morning showed outrage when stopped, with some warning officers that they were well-connected and even threatening them.

"Do you realize who my father is?" scoffed one woman stopped for using her cell phone. She still got a ticket.

Another man driving a red 1961 convertible Mercedes tried to no avail to talk and call his way out of having his car impounded for driving without registration or a seat belt.

One army officer stopped for speeding flashed his credentials and dropped his jaw when the ticket was issued anyway.

"We have been given strict instructions by the interior ministry that no one is above the law and that no one from any other ministry or government office is allowed to intervene," said Lieutenant Richard Karam, as he issued speeding tickets on a seaside highway on the outskirts of Beirut.

Still no one is holding out hope that the Lebanese overnight will become models of good citizenship on the roads.

"This campaign has to be long term to be effective," Akl said. "In any country in the world, be it America, France or Britain, if there is no law enforcement people won't abide by the rules.

"And Lebanon is no different."