Beirut's unruly roads

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BEIRUT — Driving in Lebanon can be a harrowing experience for even the most seasoned driver.

The country's roads are plagued by gaping potholes, faded or non-existent lane markings and little or no lighting. Roads with few medians corkscrew their way up steep mountains, tempting tailgaters to pass on blind curves.

This fall, however, the Interior Minister Ziad Baroud ordered the traffic division of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces to begin ticketing drivers for a variety of offenses, including speeding, blowing through red lights, not wearing seat belts and talking on cell phones while driving.

According to Mona Khouri Akl, president of the Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA), a public safety group started after a college student was killed in a car accident, the move will save lives.

"Driving in Lebanon is survival of the fittest," she said, pointing out that Lebanon's bad roads and bad drivers had claimed 850 lives this year alone. Accounting for population, that means Lebanese motorists have nearly double the chance of dying in an automobile accident than U.S. drivers.

The problem, said Akl, is rooted partly in corruption. 

Lebanon has driver education programs, but few attend because many here say it's easy to bribe the officials who issue licenses, at a cost between $100 and $300 dollars.

YASA recently sought to demonstrate how easy it was to obtain a license, pulling a media stunt in which  they bribed officials to issue licenses for two blind men and for a woman who had been killed in an accident two years earlier.

"Due to the corruption, you find people who don't care about the safety of others, who only care about gathering money in their pocket," charged Akl.

While weeding out the licensing graft does not yet  seem to be high up on the ISF's agenda, an attempt has been made to crack down on nepotism.

Lebanon is run a bit like Chicago was in the 1930s: knowing anyone with a little power often helps those trying to bypass the law.

In the past, when a driver was stopped for routine traffic violations, a call to a well-connected friend might result in another call to police headquarters. Headquarters might then tell the traffic police to let the driver go without a citation. The practice is referred to as using "wasta" or connections.

However, "wasta" is no longer a way to avoid the law, said Colonel Joseph Douaihy of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces's Traffic Department. "We are being strict with people," he said. "The minister ordered that no tickets will be stopped due to interference from other ministries or officials."

Douaihy said his 800 traffic police issued 24,000 tickets over two months this fall, a 40 percent increase on the same period last year.

Recently on a busy highway north of Beirut, two traffic police handed-out citations to drivers caught talking on cell phones, speeding, or trying to drive the wrong way down a highway exit or entry ramp.

Within a few hours, officers said, they had given out 15 tickets for speeding and five for cellphone-related violations.  The drivers were fined about $30 for each violation.

Tariq Adham, 22, said he approved of the crackdown on speeding, but resented the system of poorly located traffic lights.

"Some red lights are useless," said Adham, who added that he was like many Lebanese in that he "decided" which traffic lights to heed. 

"I'm what they say, 'practical.'  So if something is useful, I'll use it, and if something is useless, I won't," said Adham. "I don't care about regulations." Still, Adham believes the current system represents a big change from two years ago, when Beirut had few stop lights, and even fewer that actually worked.

In further evidence of changing attitudes, Marc Sirois, who has lived in Beirut for 11 years, noticed that the city's often careless taxi drivers were, for the first time, buckling up. What's more, they were asking their passenger to do the same.

"Most of the taxi drivers removed the seat belts from their cars until a few years ago," Sirois said. "Now, they're actually telling you to put it on. That's progress."

The ISF's Douaihy said the changes were merely a sign of things to come. He said the government is building a brand new traffic monitoring headquarters linked to radar and closed circuit television equipment.

Parliament is slated this year to pass legislation to replace Lebanon's existing traffic law,  which has been in force since the 1960s. Douaihy said the pending law will likely include provisions for a points-based penalty system for driving infractions and an increase in the cost of fines.

According to Douaihy, the real key to enforcement would be a doubling of traffic police, which will lead to "bigger difference in issuing tickets," he said. 

"We hope that after people get a ticket they will abide by the law."