Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2008
Issue No. 910
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Motorists learn the hard way

Nader Habib asks members of the public what they think about the new traffic law

Click to view caption
From top: an accident on the highway; parking by the no-parking sign downtown three days after the new law came into effect; luggage more than the car capacity; a traffic patrol monitoring the streets of Cairo; Central Traffic Department website

Earlier this month the new traffic law came into effect, sending many motorists scurrying off the roads to wait and see what comes next. Would traffic officers enforce the law to the letter? The answer is now known to all. On the first day of enforcement, traffic police served over 2,000 tickets and collected LE49,000 in fines. People who have a problem with seatbelts, cars with no first aid kits and motorists who forgot to buy reflecting triangles have been put on notice.

Some people liked it, especially foreign visitors. "I feel as if I am in a circus all the time. Sometimes I have fits of hysterical laughter, watching the drivers go through all sorts of acrobatics to avoid other cars," one tourist said.

Accountant Magdi Saad says that the traffic law has made a difference and that motorists now tend to respect pedestrian crossings and parking regulations. "It is now the turn of the traffic police to play by the rules," Saad told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I would like to see officers who abuse their power by taking bribes from motorists taken off the street. I was pleased to hear that General Ismail El-Shaer, assistant interior minister, has taken action in two bribery cases downtown. But can he keep an eye on all traffic officers all the time?"

The obligatory first aid box raises some questions. Medicines have a shelf life, even when kept in temperatures as low as 20 Celsius. Cars, with temperatures reaching 40 Celsius, are not the best place to keep them. "Are we supposed to buy a new kit every day or keep a refrigerator in the car for medicines?" asks Saad. He proposes that a fee, perhaps equal to the LE40 cost of the kit, be collected from motorists and used to fund a faster ambulance service.

"To be frank, if there is an accident I wouldn't try to help the victims, because I might hurt them even more. Critical cases need specialised help," he says.

Khaled Selim, who runs a driving school, is in favour of the law, believing the new regulations will bring discipline to the increasingly chaotic streets. He notes that drivers who routinely ignore traffic regulations have started to stay at home.

"You may have noticed that there are fewer cars in the street, especially the microbuses that are often driven by people with no driver's licence. In 6 October City about 60 per cent of microbuses have disappeared, mostly because they were operating in violation of the law," he told the Weekly. This created another problem, for now passengers wait longer or have to pay higher fare to go home, notes Selim.

He thinks the fines are excessive but effective. "The new law is good and I hope it continues to be enforced diligently. Corrupt implementation will be disastrous. So far things are going well, the traffic police are in control of all the roads and no one is treated as above the law."

Selim is less sure about the necessity of the now compulsory reflective triangle. "It isn't really needed in the city where the streets are too narrow and unfit for high speed. The triangles are important on the speedways though."

Selim says he is thinking of tying the triangle to his car the next time he uses it. Previously they cost LE5 but are now selling for LE70, making them likely targets of theft. He is more positive about the new, easy-read licence plates which combine letters and figures but remains puzzled why the only vehicles that do not carry the word "Egypt" are police cars.

"We need more parking spaces," Selim says, arguing that one way to help the public abide by the new law is for municipalities to build more multi-storey car parks.

Middle school teacher Mokhtar Sadek believes the provisions of the new law are not yet known to everyone. "People don't know exactly what the law means. Is the grace period applicable to the first aid kit also applicable to the triangle? We need a media campaign to explain the law, as happened when the tax system was changed. I would like to see a guidebook handed to every motorist, explaining the law. It is not enough to send cars around with loudspeakers. They distract drivers and cause accidents."

Sadek thinks schools should be involved in disseminating the law. "The first class in the new school year should be dedicated to the traffic law. We should discuss the law with students and hear what they have to say about it. I remember the days when television used to inform the young about traffic regulations. Maybe we should do that again."

"Also, in the past traffic police would fine people for jaywalking. Unfortunately this seemed only to happen in July, as if the aim of the campaign was to collect money from the public. I believe that we need to enforce pedestrian regulations again. Why do we have pedestrians standing in the middle of the road? This is becoming the pattern, not the exception."

Sadek also thinks the traffic police need further training. "Every traffic light should be supervised by an officer. They are educated and know how to treat the public. Conscripts just don't seem to have a clue how to treat the public. They quarrel with motorists endlessly. I heard that the minister of interior has ordered officers to be deployed in the streets and made them solely responsible for collecting fines."

Some motorists would like to see more traffic lights. "Especially at night, when the traffic police have gone home, the absence of traffic lights causes many accidents. If we want order in our streets we have to take care of all aspects of the traffic problem, not just one," says Hossam Selim, co-owner of the driving school.

Mohamed Shahin, a taxi driver, believes that the new law discriminates against taxi owners who must now replace vehicles over 20 years old. "Some cars last more than 20 years, especially if they are maintained. Buying a new car is expensive and the interest on instalments exorbitant." Shahin would like the decision to keep cars on the road to be left to the discretion of technical specialists in the traffic department.

He complains, too, that as far as taxi metres are concerned "the law didn't take into account the increase in fuel and spare part prices or soaring inflation".

"It does not solve any problems simply forcing taxi drivers to operate the metre. What happens is that drivers turn on the metre and then negotiate a price with the passenger."

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