Draping his new seat belt loosely across his chest for the benefit of the traffic police, Mohamed Metwally jockeys his taxi for space among Cairo's donkey carts, pedestrians, and buses that drop off staggering numbers of passengers or "pick up" others without stopping. All the while, he sounds off about Egypt's new tangle of traffic regulations. "I think these laws are just so the government can make our lives more miserable than they already are," rages the 56-year-old driver. "They want to imitate the West in everything." Metwally says he can't afford the $40 or $50 required to buy real seat belts for his geriatric Russian Lada cab. So he, like tens of thousands of other drivers faced with outfitting their vehicles with belts as of Jan. 1, had straps made at the Tawfiqiyya market for less than $8. They flop over the driver's and passengers' laps but provide no protection whatsoever.
Egypt has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. In a country with only 3 million cars, scarcely a month goes by without a speeding, jam-packed minibus flying off an overpass. One recent day, eight people were killed and nine injured in a head-on collision on the Cairo-Assiut Road, and four others were killed and 25 injured in other accidents. "This was a normal traffic day!" a government newspaper reported. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, Egypt has 44 deaths per 100 million kilometers of driving, compared with 20 in Turkey and 1.1 in the U.S. In 1998, more than 6,000 people were killed in driving accidents.
In an effort to stop the madness on the roads, the government has been phasing in a package of laws that imposes big fines for speeding, driving while talking on a mobile phone, failure to install and use safety belts and baby seats, and double parking. For running a red light or going backwards down a one-way street, a driver can lose his license for a month. But the belt law in particular has turned even those with good intentions into cynics. "I'm not against wearing seat belts, but why should we wear them in Cairo when the cars don't go over 40 kilometers an hour? This is ridiculous!" says one driver.
BUCKLE UP. But the new laws have teeth, and it's rare to get in a taxi in Cairo these days without the driver motioning at the hanging strap. Fines for failing to use a seat belt are $13 if one person in the front seat is caught and $26 if two are. Speeding tickets can cost $25 to $130. Improper parking can cost a driver up to $50.
According to Interior Minister Habib el-Adli, the new laws were designed to "confront those who threaten lives and endanger private and public property." Have they succeeded? Well, no. "The tough new traffic law did not reduce the number of road accidents," a government newspaper told its readers on Mar. 12, about 10 months after the first of the laws went into effect. Even so, the traffic police report things are going well. "We collected lots of fines at the beginning," says one cop. "But now we rarely find people who are not wearing seat belts, which is just what we wanted." How closely he inspects those belts is another question.
At Tawfiqiyya market in downtown Cairo, the boom in seat belt sales has subsided, and automotive parts dealers like 58-year-old Salim Mohamed are a little depressed recalling the good old days. "I was earning a lot of money, and I got used to it," Mohamed laments. He and others were each selling about 250 belts a day, mostly the cheap ones, but some costing as much as $90. "Now I'm selling more like two or three." The sellers say the market has never had crowds like it did in the first two weeks of January. "People were gathering around my shop as if buying this thing would get them to heaven," one dealer fondly recalls.
The shopkeepers may be losing some sales because enforcement of the seat belt law has faded as fast as the boom itself. Deluged with complaints from drivers, and perhaps realizing that the unbuckled belts for which they were handing out fines were useless even if buckled, the police have eased off. Now, as government newspapers continue to tally accidents, it's up to lawmakers to try something new. Driving tests? Vehicle inspections? Tire tread requirements? Tawfiqiyya's merchants are keeping their fingers crossed.
By Susan Postlewaite in Cairo
Edited by Harry Maurer