Being left alone with the car in Rabat (as I usually am when my wife goes to England for a fortnight in June) my mind turns easily to death on the roads. I enjoy halving my journey time into the centreville from Souissi, and nipping yellow-plated through the Mechouar; but the sheer self-centred insouciance and lethal anarchy of the driving is not good for my blood-pressure. Nonetheless Rabat traffic is often bruising but seldom fatal; the same cannot be said of the country’s road system more generally. 28.3 of every 100,000 Moroccans die in road accidents each year. This is a pretty horrible figure, but behind Egypt (42), Libya (40.5), Iraq (38.1), the UAE (37.1), Sudan (34.7), Tunisia (34.5) and Jordan (34), and shoulder to shoulder with Yemen (29.3), Saudi Arabia (29.0) and Lebanon (28.5). The world average is 20.8 and Britain 3.6, so there is certainly a great deal of room for improvement. Egypt is a premier league scorer in the road death league, beaten across the entire world only by the Cook Islands and Eritrea for the proportion of road deaths to population.
For Morocco this means between 10,000 and 11,000 deaths on the roads each year. But the statistical table has a second column which shows the number of deaths per 100,000 vehicles, and here the results are very different. In this second table Morocco earns a figure of 398.6, which means a death for every 250 vehicles. Egypt with its much higher raw score for deaths by population, scores 188.4 – or a dead Egyptian for every 530 cars. Egyptians, in other words kill many more people when driving, but even so, many more Egyptians drive safely than Moroccans. In fact Egyptians drive more than twice as safely as Moroccans. Other high scorers in the raw death column which have a greater majority of safe drivers are Jordan (a body for every 426 cars). Libya, where driving is terrible (believe me) and whose raw death rate is up with Egypt at 40.5 per 100,000 people, nonetheless actually kills only one of its own for every 718 vehicles on the road. Amongst major-league Arab countries, the top scorer is Iraq, with a death for every 132 cars on the road (having spent two years driving in Baghdad in the late 1980s, this doesn’t enormously surprise me).
But all these pale to insignificance when set beside African countries. Of the top ten only one, Bangladesh, is outside Africa. Otherwise, this is how many vehicles on the roads of each country it takes to kill one fellow-citizen: 8.6 in Ethiopia; 9.1 in Liberia; 10.6 in Niger; 14.1 in Mauretania; 15.4 in the Congo; 17.5 in Chad … and so on. Beside this Morocco’s 250 is almost respectable until you reflect that the world average figure is one death per 1071.8 cars; and in Britain it is one death per 14,285.7.
What is at the bottom of this strange and bloody contrast? It must, I suppose, be the number of cars. Egypt may kill a lot of people on its roads, but there are huge numbers of cars, so that the hecatombs are divided across many, many more vehicles. Ethiopia, I take it, has relatively few cars on its roads, so those few have to be very, very busy (almost purposeful) to keep the raw death rate so high. Libya is interesting: a fairly high proportion, relatively, of Libyans die on the roads, but there are so many cars relative to the population that most of them remain innocent of bloodshed. And Morocco … well, apart from Sudan, Yemen and Iraq, Morocco is the MENA country with the deadliest vehicles on the road. World Bank figures show that 46% of all fatalities globally are from the most vulnerable group – pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. In Rabat I am constantly reminded of this by close encounters at night with unlit mopeds; and by the dreadful sight, all too common, of a male motorcyclist wearing a helmet while his child passengers are bare-headed.
This is pretty depressing stuff, and passes through my mind each time I am overtaken by a well-heeled, super-groomed woman driving a 4×4 with her telephone pressed to her ear and her hand-mirror positioned to give her a good view of her nose. But every now and then something happens to restore my faith in human nature. This afternoon I left my car on a timed ticket, and was 40 minutes late picking it up. One of those ominous red penalty stickers had been slapped onto my windscreen. “40 dirhams,” said the parking attendant with a sympathetic grin, “but if you don’t pay till tomorrow the penalty will cover your whole day’s parking too.” I decided to pay now, and we phoned the sabotier, who appeared five minutes later. “Bonjour m’sieur, ça fait 40 dirhams.” I paid, cheerfully enough. “You know,” he said, “if you hadn’t paid till tomorrow, the ticket would have paid your whole day’s parking, too.” Thank you, but tomorrow’s Saturday, and I won’t be in the office. “Well, I’m very sorry to be doing this.” Don’t worry, I said, it’s my fault. “It gives me no pleasure. Would you like a receipt?” I didn’t think so, and for a moment he looked quite hurt: “I’m not allowed to take money without issuing a receipt.” So he wrote a receipt which I took, and we shook hands and said goodbye. My blood pressure was resolutely normal, and I actually felt more cheerful, more at one with the world after this transaction than I had before it. I was reflecting on the very different charms of London and Rabat parking wardens, when the parking attendant, unshaven and wearing a blue cotton jacket over his vest, sidled up and said, “Well you don’t need to do that again. Just leave the driver’s window open half an inch and I’ll use this stick” – he flourished a long thin cleft stick – “to pop in the tail end of unused tickets, eh?”
Driving home I thought of a story I read three years or so ago in the Evening Standard. Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, had been in Marrakech on holiday, and had been in a taxi accident. The two drivers leapt out, abusing each other and throwing fists. A policeman appeared, held them apart, calmed them down and reproved them in avuncular fashion. Boris watched in amazement as the policeman gestured imperatively for them to make up, and rather sulkily they kissed each other. That, he ended by writing, is a little lesson for London’s traffic police: London drivers should be obliged to kiss and make up.
Talking of the police, one recent development here in Rabat has been the appearance of radically new transport arrangements for the cops. There has been an issue of very natty white golf-carts, in which they shoot around the town centre, with an air that is definitely more fun and accessible than squad cars and White Marias. And last week I saw (I had to rub my eyes to be sure) a pair of coppers on smart white bikes riding down Avenue des Zaers. They were wearing uniform cycle helmets, though like all cyclists they had to cope with the Potemkin cycle-lanes in Zaers, overlaid on the outside lane of the road itself with no adjustment to the road lanes at all. Ride carefully.