It took the death of 17-year-old Talal Kassem, a prominent Lebanese banker’s grandson run over by a speeding car on his way to school, to get the Lebanese to demand more safety on their notoriously dangerous roads. An arena for local bravado, highways are often high jacked by would-be race drivers. Lebanese have always laughed about the perils of driving here but the jokes have now gone sour. In October, five people including two children were killed in car accidents in just one day. Annual statistics from the Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA) show 13,000 people were injured and more than 900 died on the road in 2009. For a country of 4 million, these are significant numbers.
So while Lebanon’s government is busy haggling on the latest point of contention: the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, ordinary Lebanese would like the debate to focus less on politics and more on day to day issues, like reckless driving.
In truth, interior minister Ziyad Baroud has made road safety one of his main battles, getting the French gendarmes to teach traffic regulations to their Lebanese counterparts, making the seatbelt mandatory and fining drivers speaking on mobile phones. But the measures have not systematically been implemented and the Lebanese themselves show incredible disdain to such regulations. Many drivers have bought their driver’s licence from lax driving centres and others try to bribe or threaten policemen to drop the fine. Recently, security forces uncovered a group of perspicacious crooks who rent out tyres to cars about to pass the yearly safety inspection.
But popular pressure is mounting and a petition started by the mother of the young Talal Kassem lobbying for new a traffic law is being circulated over the internet, while a march for her dead son was conducted in downtown Beirut. Baroud, who is one of the government’s most popular figures, has clearly got the message. “The Lebanese are not satisfied with performance of the ISF (internal security forces) (…) measures will be taken and I will put my foot down,” he said during a press conference late October.
However unsexy, road safety and regulations are one of Lebanon’s big challenges. But whatever the new regulations – more sophisticated road signs, additional radars, proper pedestrian footpaths – you can be sure many Lebanese will find ways to ignore them. This is why the government should think out of the box. Enlist for instance the serial offenders and some of the country’s savvy entrepreneurs to find effective incentives that will curb the most reckless and law-averse citizens. After all, this is one issue the Lebanese can see through without politicising it or seeking the approval of foreign powers.