By Dalila Mahdawi
Louaize: When Aldo Abboud, 25, got into a car with a drunk driver two years ago, he thought nothing of it. “I was on drugs and drunk, so I don’t remember anything” about what happened, he said. The speeding driver, who had polished off two bottles of whiskey earlier in the evening, attempted to overtake a car without realizing a car traveling in the opposite direction was doing the same. To avoid a collision, the drunk driver drove onto the pavement with such force that Abboud, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was thrown 100 meters from the front passenger seat. The driver and two other passengers escaped mostly unscathed, but Abboud spent the next six weeks fighting for his life in a coma.
The consequences of one night’s blurred judgment will remain with him forever: Abboud suffered brain damage which impedes his ability to write and completely lost his sense of smell. “Honestly, I didn’t have any brains back then,” he said with a hint of regret. “People shouldn’t drive if they’re drunk or tired. If they can’t afford to rent a hotel room, then they should stop and rest.”
Sadly, Abboud’s experience is common in Lebanon, where car crashes are the leading cause of death among young people. According to statistics provided by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) Tuesday, 354 people were injured and 35 died in car crashes this September.
Road-safety activists blame poor lighting and road maintenance, disrespect for traffic signs and lights, speeding, drunk driving and lack of enforcement by police. Having only been installed in 2008, traffic lights are more often used as mere suggestive measures than a legal requirement.
On the first day of classes at Notre Dame University (NDU) on Wednesday, officials from car-safety organizations YASA and KunHadi, the Lebanese Red Cross, and Michelin Tires appealed to students to exercise prudence while driving. Dozens of photographs of youngsters killed in crashes were displayed, transforming the cafeteria into a makeshift memorial. The most recent addition was NDU student Toufic Ibrahim, killed by a speeding driver on prom night in July. A photograph of his severely mangled car had also been tacked up.
“You don’t ever think it will happen to you,” said Rana, a student who stopped to glance at a road-safety video. “People think they’re invincible. I know so many people who’ve had accidents, but they’ll still drive after drinking or not put their seat belt on.”
“Most students aren’t aware” of what constitutes responsible driving, YASA board member Kamel Ibrahim said as he manned an information stand. “In 2008, there were more than 850 deaths in Lebanon and over 11,000 injured,” he added. He attributed the high numbers to an outdated traffic law dating to 1967. While the law has been amended, it does not make the use of seatbelts compulsory.
Furthermore, a 1995 amendment to illegalize drunk driving remains vague, providing no definition of the word “drunk.” Ibrahim also lamented the level of police enforcement. “When police enforce traffic laws, accidents decrease,” he said. “This is what happened in 2008,” when Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud cracked down on speeding drivers and ISF officials checked for seatbelt use. During that period, the number of accidents fell by 50 percent, Ibrahim said.
But it seems it will take constant awareness days and police enforcement to change drivers’ lax attitude: leaving NDU, The Daily Star’s car was nearly hit by a student driver who appeared to have mistaken the campus roads for a racetrack.