Tuesday, April 24, 2007

If You Were the King ...

... of Morocco, I asked, what law would you change? Such was the question I posed to half a dozen 20-and 30-somethings last night. Chairs were scraped repositioned into ersatz Conestoga wagon circles, heads met conspiratorially, voices dropped in hushed tones. I'm not certain what I expected (although the plight of the poor, environmental concerns, illiteracy rates & women's issues jumped to mind) but I certainly didn't anticipate a unanimous appeal to alter transportation laws.

Transportation laws? Like tougher penalties for drunk driving, (Remember, Muslims don't drink), r
epairing the roads, enforcing existing laws in a meaningful way, banning bribery?

No, no, no, my students chastised me (complete with wagging fingers). A more equitable system of fines. Wow. Didn't see that coming. Seeing the perplexed expression on my face, one student explained that police fines, i.e., the amount that one pays, should reflect one's income bracket. If you break the law and you are poor, then you shouldn't pay as much as someone who is wealthy. That's not fair, she concluded.

To be fair, I should have seen this coming. This past month, taxi drivers held a 2-day strike over a proposed new transportation bill which would allow "
the government to confiscate driving licenses, impound vehicles, levy hefty fines and even imprison drivers in the event of an accident." Different students offered different interpretations of the "hefty fines" but the number being bandied about is in the thousands of dirhams - to a maximum of $350 US. For many Moroccans, this would exceed their yearly incomes. My students were livid at the injustice of this.

Well, I suggested, wouldn't this be a moot point if drivers didn't break the rules of the road in the first place?


In light of the recent suicide bombings in Casa, a colleague recounted how she reassured her family that she was inestimably safer in Morocco than in the United States. Her case in point was the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech. I am far more likely to be shot & killed in the States, she said, than be blown up here. Perhaps that brought some measure of consolation to her family but I took her to task. I don't feel particularly safer in Morocco, I argued. Every day when I step outside my door, I feel like I'm taking my life into my hands - or rather, placing my life into the hands of complete strangers. Complete strangers in cars. In last week's 700+ road accidents, 8 people were killed and over 900 were injured. If I leave Morocco with all of my limbs in place and with complete use of each and every lobe in my cerebral cortex, I will count myself lucky.

Simply put, Moroccans are bad drivers. And when I say bad I really mean God-awful. I've railed waxed poetically on this point in previous blogs but I think it bears repeating when a proposed increase in fines levied against driving infractions creates more dialogue than making Moroccans better drivers and, hence, their roads safer. "
Traffic accidents killed 3,622 Moroccans last year, which constitutes a 4.17% increase over 2005. The total number of accidents rose by 5.22% to 56,426." Bear in mind that car ownership is not as prevalent here as in the West - just a couple of years ago it was estimated that just over 10% of families owned a car, although admittedly that number has increased.

What I find newsworthy in these statistics is that the numbers aren't higher. In a country where drivers routinely:

1) create traffic lanes. Roads built to accommodate 2 lanes of traffic now hold up to 4. Add an additional lane or 2 for motorcyclists.
2) speed recklessly
3) run red lights
4) drive through stop signs
5) drive in the wrong direction on one-way streets
6) don't yield to pedestrians
7) tailgate
8) prefer their car horns over headlights (at night) and turn signals (day & night)
9) shamelessly cut off other drivers
10) not avail themselves of their side or rearview mirrors
11) drive up along and/or park on sidewalks.

So although I appreciate that a $350 fine for running a red light may be exorbidant, as a passenger in a petit taxi who watches in helpless horror as my driver boldly enters an intersection that the cautionary red traffic light has deemed inadvisable, I applaud it. Which made me a very unpopular person in the classroom last night. And yes, I realize that there is a trickle down affect associated with a hike in penalties. As fines increase, so do the attendant bribes that drivers must pay the ticket-wielding police officers who have pulled them over. If 100 or 200 dirhams made a traffic violation disappear under the previous system, what will it take to placate a cop now? 1000 dirhams? 2000?

Which leads me to wonder why my students responded to my original question as they did. Perhaps a more apt response would have been "If I were the King of Morocco, I would quash corruption for once and for all." *Sigh* Until then, I'll continue looking both ways as I walk along Rabat's sidewalks.

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