Tunisia "road terrorism" sees traffic deaths rise
Run-down roads, reckless driving and poor vehicle maintenance are all being blamed for a spike in deadly traffic accidents in Tunisia that has safety experts worried. At least 16 people were killed and 85 injured on Wednesday when a lorry's brakes failed and it crashed into a bus in the centre of the country. The dawn accident near Kasserine also left around 15 cars ablaze in one of the country's worst crashes in recent years.
Road traffic deaths rose by nine percent in the first five months of this year compared with 2015, sparking calls for tougher measures to crack down on widespread traffic offences. By the end of May the death toll from road accidents in the nation of some 11 million inhabitants stood at a grim 528 people.
"We're experiencing road terrorism. The accident rate is simply terrifying," says Imed Touil, head of the Tunisian Road Safety Association.
In a 2015 report from the World Health Organisation, Tunisia had the second worst traffic death rate per capita in North Africa behind war-torn Libya. Tunisia logged 24.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to data from previous years, less than Libya's 73.4 but far more than 2.9 in the United Kingdom.
Activists say the climate of impunity since Tunisia's 2011 uprising is taking its heaviest toll on the young.
"Sixty percent of those killed are aged 15 to 39," Touil says, in a country where authorities have struggled to redress the economy and solve youth unemployment since the revolt that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. "The state has the primary responsibility," he says, calling for "more legal deterrents" and bemoaning a lack of funding for public awareness campaigns on better driving.
The head of the country's main traffic authority says fines – 40 to 120 dinars (15 to 50 euros) for not wearing a seatbelt or for chatting on the phone while driving – are not tough enough. Taking away a driver's licence would be much more effective, says Kameleddine Msekni.
And then there are the bribes.
A video shared online in June showing a policeman demanding a driver hand over 40 dinars caused public outrage and the officer was dismissed.
Tunisia's new government has made tackling corruption a priority more than five years after anger over graft fuelled the uprising. But in central Tunis, a policeman asking not to be named says he and colleagues find it difficult to bring "increasingly unruly" drivers to order.
"Since the revolution, road safety has got worse. Tunisian drivers are not scared of the police anymore and don't respect the traffic rules," he says.
In the capital, traffic violations are rife. Motorists ignore red lights, hurtle down tram tracks, drive against traffic or double park their vehicles. But it is not just car drivers.
Tunisians on scooters defy danger riding around without helmets, often with a child or two crammed in behind the handles.
Just outside the capital, a vehicle inspector says the accident rate has nothing to do with Tunisia's ageing cars. It's the "irresponsible drivers", he says, asking to remain anonymous.
Driving instructor Houssine Ettounsi says his students start out following the rules, but "become really reckless" once they have their licences.
This month, an editorial in Tunisian daily Le Quotidien criticised how easy it was to get a driving licence in Tunisia. It slammed both a traffic authority "gangrened" by corruption and "fake licence holders" who "turn into lethal hazards".
The authorities recognise the scale of the problem, but have said the country's security challenges have kept them from giving it more attention.
"There has been a downward spiral" in traffic safety that requires "significant resources" to address, Interior Minister Hedi Majdoub said recently.
But since the revolution, successive governments have been preoccupied with dealing with terrorism and social unrest. (AFP)