Egypt's Deadly Roads

Another traffic accident in Egypt has claimed the lives of a number of tourists, but this is hardly the first such incident this year and comes as concern grows about the country's dangerous driving culture.

On November 20, eight tourists from Russia, Ukraine and Belgium were killed in a bus crash along the highway linking Cairo to the popular Red Sea resort of Hurghada.

On October 10, two tourists were killed when their van overturned.

In 2008, nine tourists were killed and 30 injured when their speeding bus failed to turn at an embankment.

These figures shed light on a transportation system - in a country that is the largest automotive market in the Middle East and North Africa - so fraught with dangers that even tourists who come for a brief visit are at risk.

But it is the thousands of Egyptians who lose their lives every year that in the end that pay the ultimate sacrifice.

A World Health Organization (WHO) survey found that every year more than 7,000 people are killed in traffic accidents in Egypt. The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) says that car road accidents amounted to 22,793 in 2009, an 8.9% increase compared to the previous year.

The dangers faced on Egypt's transportation network hit home in October when the American University in Cairo (AUC) mourned the death of a 20-year-old student whose car overturned as he tried to avoid a depression on Road 90, which leads to campus.

On the same day the AUC community held a memorial in his honor, another student survived being hit by a truck on the same road.

Three weeks earlier, AUC's vice-president for student affairs narrowly avoided a fatal crash with a truck with faulty breaks. The increasing number of accidents on Road 90, which is a main artery leading to several universities and construction sites in New Cairo, has led some to nickname it the "road of death".

Anyone who has been to Cairo knows that navigating through poorly maintained roads and overcrowded streets is a hazardous endeavor.

A report researched by students in an investigative journalism course I teach discovered that there is a dangerous driving culture in Egypt that is caused by faulty vehicle and traffic maintenance, public failure to abide by safety codes, and lax official enforcement of existing traffic laws.

The students interviewed sources at the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Transportation, road safety experts and senior auto mechanics. They discovered that:

  • Nearly 73% of road accidents are caused by human error such as speeding, drug use, distracted driving (use of cell phones) and failure to stop for pedestrians;
  • At least 30% of truck and trailer drivers tested positive for drug use, in a study conducted by both ministries;
  • A growing number of accidents are caused by trucks and trailers hauling materiel to and from Cairo;
  • Some 70% of fatalities occur to people who are not even in the vehicle, because of an insufficient number of crosswalks and pedestrian overpasses;
  • Less than 1% of all cars stop to allow pedestrians to cross the street;
  • Bursting tires, along with failing brakes and malfunctioning steering wheels, are the leading causes of accidents;
  • Cars manufactured in the former East Europe are the most dangerous on Egypt's roads and fail international safety codes;
  • A number of traffic by-laws passed in 2008 have been enforced "theoretically, not practically" according to one official.

Egyptian authorities have promised more stringent measures in 2011. Officials in the Ministry of transportation say that police will tighten penalties and increase the monetary severity of fines. Existing fines are expected to increase up to ten-fold in 2011.

In the last two months, Egyptian police have set up radar monitoring of highways and several roadblocks to check on expired licenses. Police have also vowed to aggressively pursue underage drivers.

This article is based on research conducted by the following students in my investigative journalism class: Nadeen Shaker, Heba AbdelRahman, Lacie Simpson, Habiba El Husseiny, Rana Kamaly, Ahmed El Dahan, Reem Khedr, Dina Khadr, Tarek El Deeb and Sherif Afifi.