Damascus – A car accident killed a mother and daughter and injured 33 others last August in the area of “Saba’ byar”, 100km south of Damascus. In June, at Al-Hazm intersection, an overloaded bus collided with a lorry killing 15 people including a young man, his fiancé, her father, and grandmother.
Both accidents are examples of the tragedies that are increasingly happening in Syria on three main highways, locally referred to as the “Roads of Death”. Approximately seven people a day die in car accidents, according to the Minister of Transport, Yorab Badr. Each year, car accidents kill around 2,500 citizens and in 2008 the causes of these accidents shifted towards the lack of efficient traffic devices being the main reason. Accordingly, figures from the Traffic Department, the “condition” of the road has been listed, for the first time, as one of the main 15 reasons that are annually responsible for car accidents in Syria.
Last year, the condition of the roads came in 10th place among a list of causes of car accidents in this country. According to statistics from the Traffic Department, the condition of the roads has jumped to 3rd place in the first quarter of 2009, after speeding and careless attention to traffic rules. Out of the total number of car accidents in the first three months of 2009 stood at 249. It is worth noting that between May and December 2008, the Traffic Department recorded 446 traffic accidents that were caused by the dire state of the roads. These numbers are further proof that accidents are on the increase because of the deterioration of roads. On the other hand, accidents that are caused by over-speeding actually decreased to 3142 accidents, nearly half the number of accidents counted in the first quarter of 2008.The Director of the Traffic Department at the Ministry of Interior said, “In the past, the state of the roads and the uneven surfaces, were not the main reason that caused accidents. But with the application of the new traffic law launched on May 13, 2008, we started noticing the number of accidents caused by the poor condition of the roads. This will help locate the blind segments of specific roads”.
A study conducted by the Council of Arab Interior Ministers in 2007 stated that “the lack of safety on rugged roads contributes to 7% of the total reasons for car accidents in Arab countries.”
This reporter, from Syria’s “Economist” magazine, took a ride on the three main highways in Syria, also referred to as the “Roads of Death”. These highways are Damascus-Aleppo (355km), Al Riqqa-Aleppo (192km) and Damascus-Al Suwayda (124km). According to the analysis and the field assessment conducted by the “Economist” on June 8, 2008, on the Damascus-Hums road (area of Qatifah) the findings show rundown and uneven surfaces especially in the area of Al Shaya. This particular road has an 8km stretch with a 6.5% gradient, whereas international standards permit only a 6% gradient on a maximum distance of 3km.
For the first time, university research papers have been published and confirm that the lack of maintenance on neglected roads is becoming a major problem. The first national report on the competitiveness of the Syrian economy published in 2007 confirms that infrastructure of the roads “need to be updated to correspond with international standards”. The report also concludes that between 2006 and 2007, Syria went down 9 points from 61 to 70 on the road safety scale, out of 128 countries. This justifies that the state of the roads are only getting worse and the increasing number of accidents in Syria is proof of this.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is now referring to traffic accidents as an “epidemiology”. While two million people have died worldwide, over the past two decades because of natural disasters, nearly 1.5 million people die and 50 million are injured every year, as a result of road accidents. According to the Council of Arab Interior Ministers, 300 million people live in the Arab world. 26.000are killed annually due to traffic accidents, and 250 thousand are injured. In 2008, the Traffic Department in Syria released shocking statistics that one person dies every 3hours 11 minutes, and one person is injured every 38 minutes 30 seconds. In Syria, a car accident takes place every 26 minutes 20 seconds with an average of 7 people dying every single day. Due to car accidents, the mortality rate has reached 12.72 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants and 202 deaths per 100,000 vehicles. The Director of Research at the Ministry of Transport, Mr. Mahmoud Haffar, stated that “Syria is among the group of countries that have the highest rate of car accidents” compared with other countries in the region.
Poor Quality Roads
The President of the Syrian Association for the Prevention of Road Accidents, Mr. Stalin Keghdo described the quality of roads in Syria as “below average”. Keghdo’s view is that “past studies on the condition of roads in Syria lacked accuracy and compliance with standards set by the international community”. Keghdo explains that the faults in the roads are due to the absence of paved “side shoulders” on both sides of the road that are used to provide safety for vehicles. Furthermore, roads in Syria are mostly steep and lack a median strip, well-defined lane markings, direction signals and cats’ eyes. He also added, “We have a problem in terms of operation. The study may be correct, however, in reality, there are violations of the standards set by the global community, and therefore we find that many of our roads are substandard because road requirements have not been implemented properly, neither technically nor in planning for the provision of safety requirements on the road.” The length of road networks in Syria is more than 52,000km, of which 7,400km are central roads, linking provinces together. These roads come under the supervision of the Public Corporation for Road Transport.
Mr. Hussein Arnous, General Manager of the Public Corporation for Road Transport said, “This vast road network was established at different times, in the 1950s and 1960s, and since then, the roads have been developed and updated to suit the terrain. These roads need special supplements for traffic safety factors including lane markings, traffic signals…etc, and a lot of effort has focused in this direction recently.” Joining the group of critics is the Minister of Transport, Mr. Yorab Badr who stated: “We have not yet reached the ideal road network that we aspire to and the current network needs immense reform.”
Mr. Mohammad Kasm, an expert on the prevention of road accidents from YASA (Youth Association for Social Awareness) confirmed that the only road that follows international standards is the Airport Road in Damascus. However, the other roads in Syria lack safety barriers that are used to delineate traffic lanes in dual carriageways and defined u-turns on main roads which are currently unorganized openings in the median barrier. These are also known as “Crossings of Death”. In addition to all of these issues, vision is poor because there are no lane markings to define each lane or cats’ eyes that help define the lanes in the dark. Added to this, traffic and warning signs are of a very poor quality.Seen by the naked eye
Seen by the naked eye
Professor Andrew Saoud, from the Department of Transport and Communications Engineering, Faculty of Civil Engineering at the University of Damascus, helped supervise a number of research papers written by his MA students on the topic of roads in Syria where they proved that “there are faults on the central roads that can be seen by the naked eye. For example in “Al Thanaya” where you can see long and wide cracks in the road”. Professor Saoud performed an analysis on the Damascus-Aleppo highway in the area of “Karra” which demonstrated that “the road went out of service when it reached its maximum load capacity”. According to Saoud, the percentage of trucks and buses, regarded as heavy vehicles, are over 17% and thus can stretch the capacity of the road. This factor, in itself, leads to traffic accidents.
Professor Saoud stressed that the “faults in the roads are leading to the increasing occurrences of traffic accidents”. The research papers from the Faculty of Civil Engineering, produced between 2000-2001, concluded that “dangerous segments on the roads require the driver to reduce speed and take sharp turns with a 90-degree angle and a steep gradient”. In their papers, the students urge that these segments are removed. In response to a question, Mr. Arnous from the Public Corporation for Road Transport said: “We do not support or contest these findings. Any road in the world will have a crack, hole or safety barrier. Recently, we were able to control these faults by implementing emergency maintenance contracts. The contract includes 43 items incorporating cracks, holes, barriers, etc. Periodic maintenance is executed every three to five years in addition to daily maintenance work.”
Curves and Bends
The Director of Road Transport in Aleppo, Abdul Razak al- Hajji said, “The road between Damascus and Aleppo, and between Aleppo and Al Riqqa, did not reach the excellence of highways according to world standards. This is because the road passes through residential areas and in many cases unorganized junctions are found on the main road.” Mr. Al Hajji refers to the fact that “the organization is seeking to establish defined intersections on this main road”. In a letter to the Public Corporation for Road Transport on September 1st, 2008, it was suggested that the establishment of a second road from Aleppo to Al Riqqa would help to significantly reduce the rate of accidents.
The same applies to the road between Damascus and Al Suwayda that passes through residential areas namely “Salim” and “Atil”, where the road meanders with dangerous slopes in areas of Hizm, Lahitha, Shahba and Salim. Another road between Damascus and Sweidah was suggested in the memorandum and should follow the specifications of a highway. Saoud observes that this road was implemented without proper research, and was encouraged simply by the vision of some engineers and supervisors, where he points out that there are, “Curves in the road and irregular bends, sometimes reaching a 90 degree angle where the actual topography did not call for these bends and they could have been avoided.” An 8km road between Damascus and Aleppo runs through the area of Al Shaya, and is another road renowned for traffic accidents. An analysis by the “Economist” proves that the road plays a major role is causing the accidents. With regards to this, Mr. Arnous explains, “bends in the roads are primarily dangerous and we need a lot of financial and operation support to overcome these problems. The current gradient of the motorway is between 6 – 6.5% whereas the global standard allowed is 6% for a maximum distance of 3km.”
Maintenance plays a significant role in avoiding deficiencies that form on the road and reduce the accidents that occur. Professor Androus Saoud from the Faculty of Civil Engineering says, “In all countries in the world, you will find that the code of maintenance for each type of defect. Unfortunately, this does not exist for us, and so we are working on a book of stipulations. You find that most of the defects on the roads are caused by poor implementation and high loads and the lack of maintenance at the time needed.” Mr. Arnous added that there is a continuous deficit in the maintenance budget that is on the decline year after year. The 2008 budget was reduced by one billion Syrian Lira from a customary provision of approximately 2.5 billion Syrian Lira, whilst the actual cost for essential maintenance will reach 4 billion SL ( Syrian Lira) per year.
The problem does not end here. Research papers by MA students at Damascus University, Faculty of Civil Engineering, completed between 2004-2005, revealed that the method of maintenance currently followed in Syria is not feasible in many cases, and cannot repair the faults that occur on the surface of the roads. The papers confirmed that even after full maintenance of the highway between Damascus and Al Suwayda, the functionality of the road is poor because the maintenance and the original formation of the road do not meet international standards. The MA papers completed in 2007 at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Damascus University, recorded several observations focusing on the maintenance system implemented by the Public Corporation for Road Transport. They showed an absence of a scientific method of evaluation in the performance of the road and identifying the needs for maintenance, as well as the specific criteria for the kind of maintenance that needs to be conducted. The research papers confirmed that the maintenance of roads by the Corporation does not depend on scientific methods and the latest technology but rather on personal experiences and interpretations. Furthermore, the resources allocated for maintenance are not used efficiently and are usually shifted to projects other than road maintenance.
The population of Syria is 22 million people and the growth rate is 2.3% annually, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Traffic accidents kill 1 person every 3 hours. Accidents caused by road hazards is ranked third out of 16 leading causes of traffic accidents. The “Roads of Death” are used by 1.3 million vehicles in Syria and thus risk the lives of people every hour.
This report has been produced by Tamir Karkout and overseen by the network of Arab Reporters for Investigative Research (ARIJ)