In Alexandria, a car is totaled in a collision with a tram as pedestrians watch in astonishment. A week earlier, two vehicles plunge off a major bridge in Cairo, sending their drivers into the Nile River. And not far away, a truck flips on Cairo’s Ring Road, one of the Egyptian capital’s key arteries, blocking traffic for hours.
Road accidents are common everywhere, but what is striking in Egypt is how little the government seems to care, despite the high human and economic costs to society. An estimated 12,000 die and another 154,000 are injured in crashes each year, making Egypt’s roads among the most dangerous in the world. Accidents also cost Egypt as much as 30 billion L.E. ($5 billion) a year, according to some sources. Government neglect in road safety is yet another part of the legacy of misrule and unaccountability following decades of dictatorship.
Since the 1970s, the government embraced the private car, by allowing imported vehicles to flood the market and by subsidizing petrol, while investing little in public transport infrastructure. Yet the government has simultaneously and continuously failed to create mechanisms for enforcing road safety or even monitoring injuries and fatalities. Accidents often go unreported, and recorded incidents are reduced to an undifferentiated number with few details documenting the cause.
Nor has the government addressed basic traffic problems. It has failed to provide an effective public transport system for the vast majority of Egyptians who do not own a private car. This has spawned alternative modes of transport such as minibuses and toktoks, whose now ubiquitous presence adds to the congestion and safety risks.
Khaled Mostafa, an expert in automotive, forensic and road safety engineering based in Florida, has been trying for years to highlight road safety issues in Egypt. He begins presentations by revisiting the word ‘accident,’ the term commonly used by Egyptians. Accident, or hadtha in Arabic, connotes fate, and suggests that the event was bound to happen and therefore could not be prevented. Responsibility, therefore, is evaded. The word, crash, however, or sedam in Arabic, implies responsibility of one or more of the involved persons or elements in causing the crash. With responsibility comes accountability, law, and enforcement. This has not been the case in Egypt.
Badly designed roads and poor upkeep, as well as a general tolerance of reckless driving, are elements of the government’s neglect. Road design is often arbitrary and fails to follow set standards. Residents constantly point out that certain roads are paved, or even new roads and overpasses constructed, simply to serve some big-shot politician or businessman.
Roads must be designed within an integrated and comprehensive master plan. There is a common misconception that building more roads alone eases congestion. That argument is being used for the proposed removal of the tram system in the Cairo suburbs of Heliopolis and Nasr City. Rather than investing in making the tram a more effective means of transport for thousands of riders, the plan argues for removing the tracks and making an extra lane for cars. And the city’s road designers have never given priority to pedestrian safety.
Part of the problem is the centralized nature of the authoritarian governance system that has dominated Egypt for decades. If Cairo had a functioning municipality, it would have had its own department of transportation responsible for roads across the city. Instead, a central government ministry is in charge of transportation issues for thousands of localities throughout the country—an enormous task that it is clearly incapable of handling effectively.
Some 15,000 Egyptians have died on the roads since the 2011 revolution—around fifteen times more than the deaths in the revolution itself—and yet even Egypt’s emerging leaders have ignored the problem. Road safety should be a priority for the new government, for any government.
In addition to immediate steps to improve safety and traffic flow, long-term plans should be implemented by professionals and experts, not retired policemen and army generals who have no experience in the sector. An independent entity must be established and tasked with recording road incidents in great detail in order to create a database of information that will help future planners and researchers. Without proper data, road safety will continue to hang in the balance and Egyptians will remain vulnerable to the faceless road designers who have long been unaccountable for their mistakes.
Mohammed Elshahed is the founding editor of the Cairobserver, a publication on Egypt’s architectural heritage and urban planning. He is a doctoral student in the Middle East and Islamic Studies Department at New York University. He has written for the Egypt Independent, Jadaliyya, Design Observer, and Al Jazeera English.