Driving in an informally developed town in Giza, the official name for the western half of Greater Cairo, is slow. The road is warped into a series of small bumps, as if a choppy lake was frozen.
I asked Kamel, who is showing me around, how the asphalt became so warped. He points out that it isn’t asphalt; this is an un-paved road, used often enough that the volume of cars has compacted the dirt into something as hard as rock. Unless you had an SUV, it would be impossible to comfortably drive at more than a crawl.
Earlier last year, the head of the Egyptian Roads and Bridges authority did something unusual. He spoke about the condition of Egyptian roads as having a silver lining: The poor conditions force drivers to slow down and save lives.
Social media eviscerated the statement, and probably for personal reasons. Traffic deaths are a top cause of death in Egypt, with 12,000 people dying every year, or 42 deaths per every 100,000 Egyptians. Anybody that drives in Egypt enough sees the danger and has probably already had a close call.
Nominally, the official was right though. When people go more slowly there are fewer deaths on the road, whether that is from slowing down due to a pothole or because of traffic.
“For urban transport, basically the more congestion you have the lower the speed, the less grave the accidents,” said Ziad Nakat, the author of an often cited WHO report on traffic in Cairo. “It’s not a policy recommendation, that would be very bad obviously. But it's a fact, the more speed you have on the network the more deaths.”
The road chief’s comments epitomized an approach that puts the onus on drivers to prevent traffic deaths, and misleads, intentionally or not, the public about the benefits of infrastructure investments.
“The concerns in Egypt are very basic,” said Khaled Mostafa, a road safety specialist and creator of an awareness campaign on road safety. “You need to drive in your lane. But also you need a lane to drive in.”
In a viral video that continues to exist in Internet memes, a pro-government reporter accompanies police on a traffic stop, encountering a man driving his scooter on the opposite side of the road to beat heavy traffic.
“Are you happy you’re breaking the law?” Riham Saeed, the reporter, asks the man, dressed in a suit over a sweater.
“No I’m not happy, but I want to get where I need to go,” he says. An exchange follows that demonstrates that the driver thinks he has no reason to follow the law. Fines are low enough for him to pay, he says, and traffic violators are rarely caught in the act. In the slight case he does get caught, he says, he’ll just pay the fine. Saeed then asks him what the state of Egypt would be like if everyone followed traffic rules the way he does.
“When you all become good, we’ll be good!” he says, a not-so-veiled response to the elite in Egypt.
This feedback loop is at the heart of the problem, says Mostafa.
“You ask them to build a proper road, they say, ‘Well, people do not stick to proper behavior.’ You ask them to enforce proper behavior, while roads are not properly built,” he says. “You ask people to behave properly. They do not have the urge to behave properly—it is more profitable for them to drive the wrong way and take shortcuts.”
Pointing to the one-way street behind us, he points out a car driving in the opposite direction. About half the cars parked on the street are facing in the wrong direction as well, which in the absence of signage, confuses drivers.
The improper use of existing infrastructure is not capital intensive, but requires more political will and forceful administration of existing laws. Nakat pointed to a number of small administrative fixes that don’t actually require significant infrastructure investment.
“Minor things like traffic management of u-turns, removing physical bottlenecks, adding signals, and modern technology that they don’t have much of is not capital intensive because they are point improvement,” said Nakat. “But they can significantly change traffic flow.”
The feedback between enforcement and drivers’ behavior and the consequent effect on public health and safety underscore how administrative actions could improve public health.
It’s odd that a country like Egypt with a government that has staked its credibility on the forcefulness of its police force and its ability to deliver development goals hasn’t put two and two together.
Egypt is large and aggressive security state, although priorities seem to be with preserving continuity in the government rather than focusing on traffic rules, despite the massive loss to the economy due to road accidents and congestion.
Traffic in Cairo alone costs the economy $7 billion every year, including health costs from air pollution, lost productivity due to extra time in traffic, and the costs of road injuries and fatalities. In Egypt, 1.8 percent of all deaths are from road accidents, which is the highest death rate in the region.