Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Manners of motoring

By Fatemah Farag

When was the last time you saw a car racing down a street -- against the traffic? Or the last time you saw a policeman's orders being blatantly ignored? How about the last time you saw teenagers driving fancy cars at high speed along traffic-congested roads? Or, for that matter, the last time you found yourself pushed by the flood of traffic against an official motorcade with plain-clothes security officers driving big cars wildly around a swanky sedan embedded somewhere in their midst? Unfortunately, you will probably not have to dig very far into your memory to answer these questions. The images have become all too routine.

Despite the 12 million tickets issued by the traffic police in 1998 and the 13,393 licenses revoked last January alone, the number of accidents on highways from January to September of this year amounted to a staggering 11,323. Statistics show that 47 per cent of accidents were the result of speeding and 23 per cent the result of losing control over the steering wheel. Other reasons include cars that change lanes abruptly, causing collision.

The figures have been hashed and rehashed in forum after forum discussing the "problem" and ways of dealing with it. The Ministry of Interior has established a special force, bedecked in fancy uniforms and riding state-of-the-art motorcycles. Insurance companies are screaming for an increase in premiums to cover their losses. Parliament has approved in principle a new traffic law.

Despite all the commotion, open your morning paper and items such as the following -- a mere sample of recent offerings -- are commonplace: on various highways across the nation seven people were killed and 27 others wounded in four car accidents on 24 November; a truck crashed into two houses on Cairo's Sayeda Eisha Square; television broadcaster Salah Zaki was run over by a young woman driver as he attempted to cross a street.

The government is using a two-pronged approach: cracking down on those who violate traffic laws on the one hand, and fixing faulty roads and increasing the number of speed-breakers on the other. On 21 November, Interior Minister Habib El-Adli issued directives that top police officers are to be assigned to the streets to streamline traffic.

However, many specialists argue that the problem is more deeply-rooted. Saadeddin Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Social Research, commented: "One part of the problem is the diminished authority of the junior traffic policeman -- the people who actually manage traffic on the ground." Ibrahim added that "many of the policemen on the streets today have no experience with cities because they hail from provincial areas and are, therefore, intimidated by urban life. They think anyone driving a car is an important official and so they are scared of them."

Officials at the Interior Ministry lament the fact that many motorists do not realise that proper driving is "an art, good taste and good behaviour," which explains the signs that have popped up around town to that effect. Hagg Noureddin Nou'man, who owns a driver-training centre downtown and has been training drivers for 23 years, concurs. "Motorists are not what they used to be," he said. "I inherited this business from my father, and I can tell you that many people who drive today have no manners, especially young people."

He leaned back below the neon-lit plaque showing road signs you rarely see on the streets and added with a heavy sigh, "Unfortunately this lack of respect and manners is not confined to driving, but has come to characterise so many things."

Perhaps the disorder is a result of people feeling they are above the law. According to Ibrahim. "The nouveaux riches sit behind the steering-wheel and think they own the streets."

Madiha El-Safti, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, pointed out that "an anti-law culture has permeated society." El-Safti was careful to add that although young people tend to be the target of older people's wrath, they are not solely responsible for this kind of behaviour. "Young people have been brought up within this culture. They may seem to be guilty but, for sure, they are not the only ones."

Is there hope in sight? According to Ibrahim, "There cannot be discipline on the street without discipline in government departments. They are two sides of the same coin."

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