Maybe Saudi men shouldn’t be driving

 

Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers has prompted some pretty outrageous justifications — and that was before last weekend’s demonstrations, in which 60 women got behind the wheel in a rolling protest. One leading Saudi cleric argued that women ran the risk of damaging their ovaries and pelvises when they drove cars, increasing the possibility of giving birth to children with “clinical problems.” But perhaps none of these reasons are more ludicrous than the one charging that female drivers would increase car accidents. The Kingdom actually has one of the planet’s worst safety records. Indeed, the biggest argument against the ban could be Saudi drivers’ atrociously high road accident death toll, consistently rating among the highest in the world.

According to the most recent World Health Organization figures, Saudi Arabia has the 21st-highest road-related death toll in the world, but that number becomes even more exceptional when you look at the group of countries that are faring worse. The countries with the worst fatalities are overwhelmingly low-income countries, with the South Pacific island of Niue registering the highest number. The fact that a lot of these countries struggle with basic road infrastructure and an inadequate police force to enforce traffic laws makes the number in Saudi Arabia, a wealthy country, even more striking. Saudi Arabia has the highest accident-related death toll among high-income countries.

A 2013 study by the Kingdom’s General Directorate of Traffic found that 19 people die per day in traffic-related fatalities in Saudi Arabia, predicting that if current rates continue, by 2030, 4 million people will die annually in a car accident there. The biggest reason for the high rates is simply reckless driving — the report has found in past years that a third of all car accidents in the Kingdom are cause by drivers jumping red lights, and 18 percent were caused by illegal u-turns. In an interview with Arab News in September, the associate vice president and transportation systems director of Middle East Operations at traffic management consultancy Iteris Inc., Glenn N. Havinoviski, said infrastructure wasn’t an issue, but “when you see people turning left out of the far right lane and traffic cutting through parking lots and frontage roads, there are clearly some issues with discipline.”

Saudi Arabia has a pretty well-registered case of reckless driving, affected by what commentators call “tufush,” a national boredom among the country’s young men that stems from chronic unemployment the constraints of ultraconservative social mores. This boredom has reportedly spawned a thriving underground car culture, in which wealthier men drag race high-end cars and lower-class men “drift” cars through traffic. The scene has led observers to compare the streets of Saudi Arabia to a mix of “Death Race” and “The Fast and the Furious.” Of course, the relationship between a culture of reckless driving and the all-male Saudi driver base could be more than coincidental: a recent U.S. study by Quality Planning, a firm that conducts research for insurance companies, found that men were 3.4 times as likely as women to be ticketed for reckless driving and 3.1 more times as likely to get a ticket for drunk driving.

At least sixteen women have been fined for defying the ban on driving in Saudi Arabia in recent demonstrations, but a post on the campaign’s Facebook page vowed that women in the country would keep up the protest. A Saudi woman who was filmed driving during the demonstrations told Reuters, “Yesterday there were lots of police cars so I didn’t take the risk. I only took the wheel for a few minutes. Today I drove and nobody stopped me. For sure I will drive every day doing my normal tasks.” If the current state of driving in Saudi Arabia is any indication, that kind of resolve from other women might be the best thing for the country’s public safety.

© 2013, Foreign Policy

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