The erratic driving habits that prevail in developing countries are a common subject of jokes, by rueful locals and trembling visitors alike. These jokes are – as jokes so often are – a defence mechanism. When we liken the journey we’ve just survived to a turn on a dodgem rink or the climactic scenes of The Blues Brothers, we’re trying to persuade ourselves that it wasn’t as bad as it looked, that there wasn’t really a chance that our journeys could have had gruesome consequences. But they do, and far too often.
According to a 2009 WHO report, 90 per cent of the world’s traffic fatalities occur in low-income and middle-income countries – which have only 48 per cent of the world’s vehicles. It is this correspondent’s belief that the overwhelming majority of these casualties were entirely and easily avoidable.
A recent assignment to Egypt for Monocle necessitated a return trip along the highway that links Cairo to Alexandria. By Middle Eastern standards, it could have been worse. In my admittedly unscientific judgement, Egyptian roads are marginally less terrifying than those of Libya, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories (our driver may beg to differ, just at the moment – he wrote his vehicle off en route to collect the photographer and translator, though was mercifully uninjured).
But Egypt’s roads, like all Middle Eastern roads, are bad: chaotic, crowded, badly maintained, barely policed, swarming with incompetent, belligerent, utterly inconsiderate drivers. It is altogether unsurprising that, in 2007, 12,295 people died on Egypt’s roads, and a further 154,000 were injured. The economic cost of this carnage, especially to a poor country, can only be wondered at.
“It’s like a war,” agrees Mousub Shashaa. Shashaa is the marketing manager of Arab Motors TV, an Amman-based satellite channel that broadcasts motoring programmes across the Middle East. “There are lots of reasons for it,” he sighs. “There is hardly any real punishment for bad driving – fines tend to be cheap, and you can usually bribe the police. And because you can get a licence by knowing somebody, there are no driving schools. And there’s no planning for the future – governments care more about Israel and Palestine than improving their own countries.”
All of which are reasonable points. One would think that an advantage of being the kind of tyrant which dominates the Arab world would be an ability to impose – and enforce – speed limits, seatbelt laws, a rule that motorists pick a lane and stay in it, and a briskly worded decree to the effect that it’s not on to let your children climb all over the damn dashboard.