Saturday, December 09, 2006


The following is pulled straight out of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Jerusalem and the Holy Land on driving in Jordan:

While driving is on the right, Jordanians seem to consider most other road rules open to interpretation. Overtaking takes place on both sides of the road and right of way goes to he or she who hesitates least.
We all know that driving — and heck, walking — on the streets can be a dangerous proposition in Jordan. Qwaider’s recent post entitled "Streets of Jordan" touches on the blatant offenses: excessive speeding, disregard for street signs (and traffic laws, apparently), double and triple parking, driving in between lanes and talking on the phone (or applying make-up) while driving. I might add incorrect usage of high beam headlights, over-usage of the car horn and lack of seatbelt usage to the list.

For a developing country that likes to tout itself as beacon of modernism and tourism in the Middle East, the “road rules” tend to speak otherwise. Many visitors wonder why Jordanian drivers appear to be a bunch of idiots behind the wheel. The problem isn’t idiocy, however; they’re just first-generation drivers.

Columnist Gwynne Dyer accurately explains the rationale behind this driving trend:
Around the world, about 1.2 million people are killed in road accidents each year. An astounding 85 per cent of those deaths happen in developing countries, although they own less than a fifth of the world’s vehicle fleet.

There’s no getting around it: there are very, very bad drivers in China, India, Africa and the Middle East.

Take Liberia, for example. If the Liberian death rate were transposed to the United States, six million Americans per year would be killed on the roads. Actual American road deaths are about 40,000 a year, so it is 150 times more dangerous to drive in Liberia than in the United States.

Dyer goes on to explain the trend using a statistical rule of thumb called Smeed’s Law.
Back in 1949, R.J. Smeed, professor of traffic studies at University College London, proposed a “law” which was, to say the least, counterintuitive. He said that a growing number of cars on the road leads to a decrease in the number of accidents per vehicle. A growing car population means a big, persistent annual fall in the death rate per million kilometers driven.

The amount of road traffic in the United States has grown fourteen-fold since 1925. If the number of American deaths per million kilometers driven had stayed steady at the 1925 rate, there would now be 300,000 deaths per year on American roads, not 40,000. Americans have become much better drivers.

Smeed offered no explanation for this phenomenon, but I think that there is a collective learning process as more and more people become experienced drivers, and particularly as the generations turn over and children grow up in families that already own cars.

In thirty years, the mass stupidity that was Mexico City’s road scene in the 1970s—make six lanes where there are only three, block the intersections, and blow your horn incessantly—has morphed in to the relatively silent Mexico City traffic of today, which flows more smoothly now even with three or four times as many cars on the road.

Dyer’s statistics go on to say that Third and Developing World drivers still achieve kill rates as high as those of 1920s Americans in their Model T Fords.

My issue with Dyer’s assessment is that I am not witnessing the collective societal learning curve when it comes to driving in Jordan. On the contrary, people are learning, but in a more adaptive way to the poor traffic habits of surrounding drivers (as Qwaider can attest).

And while Dyer (and Smeed) attribute safer driving practices to each successive driving generation, I don’t believe either give enough credit to the enhancements of traffic laws and driving infrastructure over the generations. This becomes a problem in Amman, where traffic laws are not enforced (in fact, the corrupt police are the biggest offenders) and the lack of a city-wide master plan has resulted in a dizzying mess of poorly designed roads and thoroughfares.

My fear is that the police will eventually be forced to obey and enforce the law (in a fair and consistent manner, hopefully) and the Greater Amman Municipality will finally gets its act in gear when it comes to proper infrastructure design just in time for Amman to achieve total gridlock.


Blogger The Observer said...

Dave, It is funny how I just popped up into your blog after Jad mentioned your name as he wanted to hear a foreign input about his assumption that it is safer to live in an Arabic country rather than the US because of his read about the number of prisoners in the US jails, only to found you posting about the lack of safety in the roads of Amman :)

12/11/2006 9:58 AM  

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