On urban highways in the Middle East, cars pinball across lanes at over 100 mph and wrecks are so gory and damage so great one might think the mangled vehicles were destroyed by a bomb.
The region is plagued by some of the world’s highest accident rates, with reckless drivers and speeders blamed for some 3,000 traffic deaths per month in Arab nations.
The carnage has emerged as a public health crisis — the second-leading cause of death, after heart disease, in wealthy Persian Gulf countries — and a chief cause of gridlock gripping many of the Middle East’s fast-growing cities.
World Health Organization statistics show the “Eastern Mediterranean region” — including most Arab countries, Israel, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan — has a rate of 26.3 deaths from traffic accidents per 100,000 population. Only Africa’s rate is higher, at 28.3. In North and South America, the rate is 15.7; the rate in Europe is 14.5.
In Arab nations, it amounts to 3,000 deaths a month, according to a study by the Tunis-based Arab Road Safety Organization.
“That’s equivalent to the number of Sept. 11 victims,” Riadh Dabbou, chief of the organization, told the Gulf Traffic Convention in Dubai Monday.
Car accidents every three minutes
Gulf nations are the worst offenders in the Arab world. Dubai police say a traffic crash occurs in the city every three minutes — every two minutes during the rush home for the evening meal during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“It’s horrifying,” said Glenn Havinoviski, a traffic technology expert with Virginia-based consultancy Wilbur Smith Associates. “You have a tremendous safety problem. More traffic means more and more accidents.”
Boomtown Dubai has mushroomed to 1.5 million people from about 20,000 in the 1950s. The number of registered cars in the city is projected to reach 800,000 next year — doubling from 2001, said Baher Abdulhai, director of the University of Toronto’s Intelligent Traffic System Center.
“You are a victim of your own success,” Abdulhai told those at the convention. “You will lose business if you don’t tackle this problem.”
In the United Arab Emirates, there are 21 traffic deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 15 in the United States and around six in Britain. Saudi Arabia has a rate as high as 30 deaths according to some figures.
Even worse are the number of deaths per 100,000 vehicles: around 116 in the UAE, six times the U.S. rate, according to a study done by University of Nottingham in England.
The Nottingham study blamed 62 percent of the crashes on a combination of reckless driving and speeding. It said reckless local driving habits had not changed despite rapid modernization in the Gulf.
Non-Arab countries in the Middle East are just as bad. Israel reported 27 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles, versus 18 in the U.S. and 11 in Britain.
High risk on roads in Iran
Iran has one of the highest rates of road accidents in the world — 38 deaths per year per 100,000 people. One person is killed every 40 minutes in accidents in Iran, and one is injured every seven minutes, according to the Iranian state news agency.
A video aired at the Gulf Traffic Convention showed dozens of children orphaned by traffic wrecks marching recently in the Emirates capital Abu Dhabi. The children wore black mourning robes, and some carried banners reading, “They were killed by speed.”
“We lost our fathers,” the children chanted. “Why didn’t he go slowly?”
Convention delegates studied computer and road sign technology aimed at easing traffic problems in their home countries.
The Wilbur Smith organization is overseeing Dubai’s installation of a high-tech “intelligent traffic system” by Germany’s Siemens AG, with sensors and video cameras linked to a command center and electronic signs warning drivers of crashes and detours ahead.
A University of Bahrain traffic expert called for better public transport, saying the automobile is wreaking destruction on Arab society.
“We have adopted a transportation system that is killing people,” said Abdulrahman al-Janahi. “Is this sustainable? It’s a transport system with no mercy.”
But his proclamations appeared to stand little chance of catching on.
Across the Dubai convention center from the road safety gathering was the far more popular Middle East International Motor Show, where throngs ogled Ferraris, Porsches and customized Mercedes sports cars.