No mercy for Beirut traffic offender
Lebanon, once a byword for violent anarchy, remains a country where the rule of law is patchy, to put it kindly. But Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a youthful reform-minded lawyer who was appointed in July as part of a national unity government, is determined to change that, or at least to make a start. He has told the traffic police to do something about the cheerful but sometimes lethal chaos that pervades the roads.
Few Lebanese normally bother with seat belts or crash helmets. Speeding with a mobile phone glued to your ear or an infant in your lap comes naturally. Double or triple parking is the norm, lane discipline an alien concept and right of way determined by who gets there first or who drives a bigger vehicle. Scooters fizz everywhere, a law unto themselves.
Now Baroud is trying to impose order on all this wild individualism. As I discovered the hard way.
Leaving home by car the other day, I found my normal route blocked by a truck delivering steel rods to a building site. I had a choice. Turn left, legally, and face a lengthy detour through jammed streets, or turn right for 20 metres the wrong way down a one-way street onto the main road.
I was in a hurry and in Beirut one-way signs are just part of the urban decor, so for the first time in my two years here (honest), I took the short cut. Only to find myself collared by the long arm of the Lebanese constabulary lurking around the corner. The young traffic cop then swiftly flagged down a sleek black Mercedes which had followed my rash example. He proved impervious to our excuses about the truck obstruction.
“I have to give you a ticket,” he told the protesting Lebanese driver, “otherwise this foreigner will get a bad impression.”
“And I have to give you a ticket,” he gently explained to me, switching into competent English, ”because I’m booking the Mercedes.”
I pleaded for a while, telling him how absurd it was that I’d been caught on my first offence. “Yes, it’s bad luck,” he sympathised, continuing to write out the ticket.
Just then sirens wailed and a convoy of black SUVs carved a path through traffic, lights flashing. For a few moments, my policeman gestured furiously at drivers to make way. “That was our minister, Mr Baroud,” he said as the cavalcade tore on noisily towards the airport road.
“Ah, he’s the reason you are giving me a ticket,” I suggested.
“Exactly, I don’t want to lose my job, I’m so sorry,” he apologised with a smile, handing me a receipt for my driving licence, to be redeemed later that day after a long wait and payment of a $40 fine.
Well, I had to admit it was a fair cop. And I can only applaud Baroud’s quixotic effort at enforcing the rules of the road – the message on seat belts is already getting through. If he succeeds, who knows, he might be able to crack down on the bribery, tax evasion and abuse of power which explain Lebanon’s lowly ranking of 102 on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index — comparable to the likes of Tanzania, Bolivia and Mongolia.
But Baroud is a member of a government with a very short shelf-life. His main task is to prepare for parliamentary elections in May or June next year. And when it comes to tackling the unruly habits of the Lebanese, on or off the road, there are no short cuts.