Travelling around Morocco on a recent trip in taxis and private cars, it was noticeable just how well most people drive compared to a few years ago. Speed limits and stop signs were all observed and there were no incidents in which a driver attempted to overtake in a dangerous situation. Yet, despite this, the number of accidents in Morocco is on the rise. Abdelhakim Khirane reports on the road carnage in Morocco and asks the question: "Traffic accidents in Morocco: whose fault?"
Life is your most precious possession, treasure it; better late than never; the road kills; let's change our behaviour; using the mobile phone while driving increases four times the risk of accidents;... these are a few of many clichés used on several occasions to sensitize road users and citizens to the dangers of roads. To no avail! Barely a day goes by without reporting a number of accidents, causing serious human and economic losses. Worse still, a substantial increase of around 3% is reported every year.
A daily "war" ...
Traffic crashes on Moroccan roads claim a daily average of no less than 10 lives and 200 injuries. Strikingly enough, the 2005 international classification placed Morocco sixth in terms of the number of traffic accidents.
Official data show a significant increase in 2008. 64,715 physical accidents occurred in the country's roads, killing 4,162 people and leaving 12,992 seriously injured. It is a 9.83% rise in accidents, 8.44% in the death toll and 4.72% in the number of serious injuries.
Worse still, the plague also costs an economic loss of 11 billion Moroccan Dirhams (1.3 billion U.S. dollars), which amounts to as much as 2.5% of the national GDP.
What to blame for this carnage?
Certainly, there is no one single factor in what causes traffic accidents. Yet, opinions understandably diverge as to the major factors.
For Mohammed Hommani, a taxi driver, the poor quality of roads is the first contributory factor. “Our roads are by no means fit for traffic. They are horrible and evidently cause the majority of traffic accidents,” he says.
“There is no denying the fact that our roads are the primary factor in accidents,” Abdellah J., a bus driver, agrees.
He says with a sense of humour that “it is quite paradoxical that our roads are not even: you either find large holes, ditches or bumps.” “No road is a good road,” he deplores. A second paradox emerges: “while the number of vehicles is rising, our roads are deteriorating.”
The two drivers concur that the road user behaviour does also take a toll. Both pedestrians and drivers bear a share of responsibility, they say, as “pedestrians do not usually walk alongside the pavement; they tend actually to walk in the road. In addition, they do not pay enough attention when crossing, not to mention the problem posed by novice drivers, motorcyclists and cyclists,” says Mohammed.
As for drivers, many of them fail to abide by the road code, they agree. Worse, even on motorways we are witnessing a growing number of accidents. It is, first and foremost, due to speeding and drink-driving, Mohammed says.
Abdellah raises another paradox. “While everybody knows and witnesses that badly designed roads stand out as the main factor, the police department never cites this factor in its weekly reports on accidents. Only drivers, pedestrians and vehicles are responsible!” he says.
Evidently enough, and just like other bus drivers, Abdellah points an accusing finger at taxi drivers for “failing to comply with road regulations, and, hence, causing a number of accidents.”
Aziza A. points to another factor relating to road user behaviour: the lack of tolerance on the part of drivers. Some, maybe rightly, say the widespread corruption in granting driving licenses and turning a blind eye on offences in return for bribery has also a share of responsibility. Hommani hints to this by saying that “even if you abide by the law, the problem cannot be solved …”. “It is a common fact that bribery is widespread,” he adds.
Yet, officials take a dim view of these arguments. For Ezzddine Chraibi, Permanent Secretary of the National Committee for the Prevention of Road Traffic Accidents, the human element holds centre stage in the issue. He advances that “whatever we may do remains insufficient. Only the human element can help to achieve the desired results. It is not really a matter of laws or measures; what we need is primarily awareness on the part of road users.”
A government keen to counter accidents
To face up to the problem, a Highway Code has been submitted to the parliament. It is intended to provide greater protection for “vulnerable categories,” especially pedestrians and drivers of two-wheeled vehicles, and to improve road signs. The code institutes stiffer penalties on offenders. Sentences can go to up to five years in jail and fines as high as 40,000 dirhams in the case of manslaughter, and up to four years in jail, plus fines between 2,000 and 10,000 dirhams in the case of injuries.
The plan eyes the bold objective of reducing road accidents before ultimately reversing the trend!
In addition to the legal framework, the government introduced a new 1 billion-dirham emergency road safety plan for 2008-2010 with the aim of improving safety on Morocco's roadways.
In an effort to make emergency assistance more efficient, the government has decided to create a committee tasked with implementing a general emergency telephone service and devising rapid emergency response programmes.
In 2003, the government had set up a programme to monitor roads with high incidence of accidents and to improve the road network and urban highway maintenance.
Aware of awareness-raising in reducing the number of accidents, the Moroccan authorities launch, every February, a nationwide road prevention campaign to heighten the population's awareness about this plague. They also established a “national road safety day” (February 18) to take stock of achievements and define shortcoming in efforts made towards combating accidents.
Are these measures enough?
Not really. Professionals reckon that the primary feature of the Code is punishment not protection. As a result, transport trade unions staged, since 2007, a series of strikes in protest at the Code, considering that it is impossible for a driver to pay a fine that equals or even exceeds his monthly income.
“The Code is unbearable,” Hommani says. For “how can I pay a hefty fine while I earn a meager 100 Moroccan dirhams (12 U.S. dollars) daily?” “Indeed, we do not reject the Code, but we call for exaggerated measures to be withdrawn, and to set any otyher measure proportionally with our daily income, ”he asserts.
“Officials make out that they are not aware of the drivers’ situation,” Abdellah says. For him, “this adds up to another problem.” “But irrespective of our social situation, how can a driver pay a fine more than his meagre income?” he asks.
Amid controversy and the tug of war between unions and the government, and regardless of where responsibility lies, this daily carnage goes on taking more lives and causing further losses. But a heavy toll of more than 10 lives taken everyday, together with colossal economic losses should be enough reason to leave aside divisions and join efforts to combat this plague. The country is bound to gain a lot if this money can instead be spent on development projects. Substantial potential can be realised, too. It is high time to do so!
Story: Abdelhakim Khirane
Photos: Sandy McCutcheon
Tags: Moroccan Morocco Fes, Maghreb news