By Ahmed Atef Ramadan
Cairo, Aug 2015, (Al-Sabah) – Outside his house at the village of al-Saf of Qaliubiya province, taxi driver Sami Bakri, in his fifties, sat trying to lean on his cane watching cars and bemoaning the days he spent in a profession that almost cost him his whole life.
One day, his tire blew out on the Egypt-Alexandria road. The car, full of passengers, overturned, and all seven died. He sustained severe injuries but survived.
In his testimony recorded investigations prosecutors, Sami said that the tire that the car owner bought, although old, looked brand new (he bought it to save maintenance costs). Sami believes that the main cause of the accident was the tire. “I did not imagine it could lead to this”.
Some car owners do not care about the lives of civilians, he added, and buy re-grooved tires. The prices could be as low as one-third of a new tire. These re-grooved tires are among the leading causes of road accidents.
Sami’s case is not unique. Up to 12,000 people die each year in Egypt in road accidents, according to a 2014 report by the Road Safety Program. The WHO stated that Egypt loses 20 to 60 billion Egyptian pounds each year as a result of these accidents.
This investigation reveals how unlicensed workshops and shops re-groove expired tires that had been used for 40,000 to 50,000 km (the lifespan set by most companies for tires) using primitive tools and methods that violate standard specifications for regrooving tires. They then resell them in the market as road-worthy tires, amid a lack of oversight by the Supplies Inspection directorates at the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Industry and Foreign trade . As a result, road accidents increase and more people are put at risk of death or injury.
The village of Black Gold
After tracing the tires of Sami’s car and where the owner had bought them, we were led to the village of Mit al-Haroun near the town of Zafti in the Western Province, known in the media as the village of Black Gold. Indeed, 80% of its residents work in recycling tires. They collect expired tires (unusable) and recycle them into baskets and containers that they sell.
This is one way the local youths fend off unemployment that is rife in Egypt — 3.5 million unemployed accounting for 12.7% of the working-age population according to official statistics from 2015.
For two months, our investigation followed the lead provided by Sami to the village, where we found 200 unlicensed workshops and shops selling re-grooved tires. As we visited the village in October 2015, we witnessed a campaign that aimed for the removal buildings illegally built on farmland. These buildings included workshops.
The campaign proceeded under heavy security guard. The person in charge of the campaign said most of these workshops are unlicensed. There was no significant resistance from the owners of the shops.
Car owners involved
Mahmoud al-Sayyed (pseudonym) is a 38-year-old truck driver from Qaliubiya. Changing the tires of his truck costs 112,000 Egyptian pounds ($13500). There are 28 tires in total, 16 in the trailer and 12 in tractor, and a pair costs no less than 8,000 pounds ($960). The owner thus purchases two new tires for the tractor, and goes to the village of Mit al-Haroun to buy the rest, 26 re-grooved tires that look like they are brand new, at a fraction of the cost (2000 pounds or $240).
Although Mahmoud knows these tires put his life at risk and the lives of others on the highways, he has no alternative. If he leaves his job, he would lose his main source of income and will no longer be able to support his wife and two children.
The Road to Mit al-Haroun
Discarded tires on both sides of the road, cottages and huts full of the remnants of torn tires, cars are filled out and bought tires coming or emerging from that village,which consumes a period of two hours to reach it from Cairo .
In the village, many students dropped out of school to work in the tire shops to support their families. Even though the residents confirmed the village, which has a population of 3,000, does indeed have one elementary school.
Ahmed al-Masri, 27, is a tire dealer. We met in the village. He said that tires are collected through government or private tenders from Suez, Alexandria, Cairo, and Port Said at prices of 2% of their real prices after having been used past the kilometre-distance specified for them. They are divided into three categories, he added.
The first type are cut and recycled for use as raw material for making rubber containers. The second type are cut into small 5×5 cm pieces to be used as fuel for cement factories instead of coal and oil derivatives, which are more expensive. The third type: tires in good condition are selected based on their external appearance. Usually, because of wear and tear, these tires have a smooth surface without grooves. But they are re-grooved using special machines so that they can appear new after being washed with water, before being resold as road-worthy tires.
After three visits to the village over 21 days, and spending a lot of time with dealers and tire makers in 10 different shops, we learned that there are four people in the village who specialize in re-grooving old tires. The owners of tire shops bring in old tires to be re-grooved so they can resell them to customers, according to Mohammed, who specializes in this trade in the village. The cost of re-grooving ranges between 7 and 10 pounds for truck tires and 5 pounds only for small tires.
Ahmad Masri 27-year-old, dealer and distributor frames, met “a contagious investigation” during his wandering in the village. Tires that are collected through government or especially from the provinces of Suez, Alexandria and Cairo, Port Said, add up to 2% of the real price after consumed numbers in kilometers are specified and expired are divided into three types, the first to be cut up and recycled to industry Almqatef, and the second is cut sizes of 5 cm x 5 cm (five in five) by electrical machines traveled especially to be used as fuel for cement kilns factories substitute for coal, where you buy cement plants cheap with worldwide coal and gasoline and diesel. The third type is choosing tires with a good situation in terms of appearance, which because of its use has become ( smooth ) without drilling or carvings , and are re- dug again through dedicated to this small machines to a recent show well after scanned or water- washed, and sold -framed useable .
Naqsheh added that when tires are smooth, dealers are forced to sell them at lower prices compared to grooved tires. So in the event they are re-grooved, the prices go up, because customers are fooled by their external appearance. The man said he has been working for 40 years in this trade, confirming that four dealers like him in the village produce 40 re-grooved tires a day.
The tire specialist claimed that tires can only be re-grooved twice, because the thickness of the rubber material decreases after each time, noting that some drivers re-groove their tires when they go to renew their licenses as cars and tires are inspected superficially by the traffic police of the ministry. If tires appear smooth, the car fails the inspection.
After more than a month of research and investigation, we were able to learn that most tire shops in the village secretly kept electric grooving machines. They are small machines that resemble electric razors, and have a pointed tip that can be inserted in the tire’s material for re-grooving. They use it to re-groove tires before selling them to customers. We managed to photograph some of these machines, which sell at 2000 pounds ($240) each, imported from abroad.
There are several conditions for the re-grooving process, according to the standard specifications for re-grooved tires for 2015. First, the label “Regroovable” should be placed on the tire or the logo with quotation marks to show the purchaser that the tire was re-grooved and to avoid fraud.
Although it is self-evident that these tires violate both local and international specifications, we purchased two re-grooved truck tires to test them. The dealer we bought from said the tires were “fit to use”, indicating the price of new tires would have been around 2,000 pounds compared to 400 pounds he sold them to us at ($48).
We took one tire to the Specifications and Quality Commission of the Ministry of industry and Foreign Trade for testing. We took the other tire to an international tire agency (Dunlop in Egypt) to test it.
Major General Adel Turuk, Head of Roads and Bridges Authority of the Ministry of Transport, said his department has statistics on car accidents. According to the last one he had from 2014, private or small cars accounted for 45% of accidents, while transport trucks and buses accounted for 25%. Turuk said the figure was “horrific”, especially because accidents involving large vehicles involve a large number of casualties.
He said his authority is concerned with road safety on highways that his department oversees, stressing that the figures have become very troublesome. He blamed the accidents on human errors, mechanical faults, and road infrastructure, but said the biggest problem was linked to mechanical faults since most cars on the roads are old or have faulty tires.
Regarding the role of his authority in reducing the number of accidents, he said his department allocated special roads to trucks and transport vehicles, and lanes with speed limits. A special authority was also established for road safety and transport vehicles.
Maj. Gen. Turuk called for inspecting tires for safety by traffic police, transport stations, and motor inspection, given the danger the issue poses to motorists.
We received a phone call from officials at the Specifications and Quality Authority two weeks later. They said the tire submitted for testing was used and did not confirm to any specifications. After several attempts to bypass government bureaucracy, the tire was sent by the authority to the General Exports and Imports Supervision Authority in Alexandria. Two weeks later, we obtained an official report confirming the result of the test, which showed the tire was irregularly eroded and contaminant (metals). The tire did not display any labels indicating it had been retreated. It was unfit for use.
Meanwhile, the report from Dunlop that tested the second tire said it was unfit for use as it was at risk of blowing up at any moment and thus risking the safety of passengers.
Bassem Nabil, technical support officer at General Misr, exclusive agents for Dunlop Tires, said the person who re-grooved the tire that was submitted for testing was neither a professional nor a technician since the tire was grooved all the way to its internal structure exposing it to rusting and erosion from coming into contact with water, air, and other elements on the road. These tires are therefore vulnerable to failure and rupture and explosion at any moment. Nabil also said primitive heat-based machines were used, which also damages the internal frame.
Nabil explained that re-grooving has strict requirements: it has to be done by an engineer or a technician using modern machines in order to ensure the integrity of the tire’s components and maximum grooving thickness. The label “regrooved” must be placed visibly on the tire, especially on the upper part of the tire (thread). “Let’s say the thread is on top of 3-mm thick layers, in ordinary non-re-grooved tires. With re-grooved tires, factories add additional layers on top of the 3-mm layers, making the section 6-mm thick. The grooving goes 3 mm deep leaving 3 mm to bear the load just like a new tire,” he said.
Nabil noted that there are differences between brand new tires and retreaded ones. For instance, new tires contain “longitudinal lines” that are useful for trucks and buses travelling on rugged roads, because it makes them easier to handle in turns. These lines do not exist in re-grooved or re-treaded tires. When the rubber is eroded to this point, the tire needs to be replaced with a new one immediately. Otherwise the vehicle would be travelling on a smooth tire that will make the car harder to control and that will be able to bear less loads, thus exposing it to the risk of explosion.
Nabil called on people who buy re-grooved tires not to save money at the expense of their lives and safety as well as those of others.
Although the punishment for fraud by law (281/1994) is a minimum of one year in prison and a fine of £20,000, this has proven not to be a deterrent, encouraging fraud and putting more lives at risk.
Article II of Law No. 281 of 1994 makes it punishable by imprisonment for not less than one year nor more than five years and a fine of no less than 10,000 and not exceeding £30,000 pounds, or the equivalent value of the item subject of the crime, whichever is greater, the following:
Fraud or attempted fraud regarding human food, animal food, drugs, medicinal plants, medicines or agricultural crops or natural products or industrial products ready for sale, as well as anyone who offers for sale or sold any of these foods or drugs or medicinal plants, medicines or crops or adulterated products, whether corrupt or expired, knowingly.
For whoever makes or subtracts or offer for sale or sold materials or containers or covers , which is used in the adulteration of human food or animal or drugs or medical data or drugs or crops of farm or natural products or industrial products on the face denies passport used widely used project with intent to defraud , as well as all who incites or assists in use in fraud by pamphlets or publications, or any other means whatsoever .
The punishments listed in this article are applicable even if the buyer is aware of the fraud.
Confronting the Supplies Inspectorate
We took our findings and the results of the two tests to the Supplies Inspectorate, the authority in charge of regulating markets.
Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Ashiri, Assistant Minister of Interior for the Supplies Inspectorate, said that from 1/8 to 9/11 2015, his department investigated 171 cases involving automotive spare parts coming from unknown sources, with 335,826 parts including tires. There were 42 fraud cases involving tires that were recycled or old tires that were re-grooved and painted.
Ahmad Atef: There is a whole village called Mit Haroun where tires are restored and sold after being re-grooved as though these tires are fit for use
Ashiri: We have had a complaint about this place and it will be targeted soon
Ahmad Atef: We went there and took a sample then showed it to the Specifications and Quality Authority and they responded to us, you can see their reply?
Ashiri: That village is famous for that and it will be targeted
Ahmad Atef: A major tire dealer in Egypt also carried out tests on the tires and found it to be unfit for use. He said it poses a risk to the life of the users.
Ashiri: The technical authorities should determine whether it is fit or unfit, after tests at the laboratories of the General Authority for Exports and Imports Control
Ahmad Atef: They responded to us and said the tire did not conform to any specifications and is unfit.
Ahmad Atef: I will show you a video on the laptop that will show you the extent of the tragedy we are in. The tests have proven that these tires are at risk of exploding.
Ashiri: The rubber substance which make up the tire have a certain number of kilometers they can efficiently run on, which is about 50-70 km, before they are in need for inspection.
Ahmad Atef: Don’t you believe, sir, that this is a big disaster?
Ashiri: This is fraud
Ahmad Atef: So will it be dealt with?
Ashiri: We are dealing and we will be dealing with this…fraud is old and ongoing, and involves creativity
In the absence of proper oversight, unlicensed shops continue to re-groove expired tires, selling them as fit for use. Car owners are involved in the fraud too, risking their and others’ lives to save money.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net