Driving in Iraqi Kurdistan 'Like being at war'

Badly maintained roads and unenforced road rules in Iraqi Kurdistan mean there is almost one fatal car accident a day. Better public transport is planned, speed cameras have been installed and a religious decree on speeding has even been issued. But will it help?

The two cars speed toward one another on the highway outside of Erbil city in Iraqi Kurdistan; both are travelling fast, at around 100 kilometres an hour. The driver of the black car is on the wrong side of the road - he was in the process of overtaking another vehicle and now he appears to be trapped there due to a queue of vehicles on his rightful side of the highway. The two cars look like they’re playing a deadly game. But shortly before what should have been a fatal impact, the black vehicle swerves onto a grassy field on the other side of the road. The front of his car ploughs into the dirt at high speed, it’s rear half on the asphalt, dust clouds surround it. Other drivers on the Kurdish road look on, horrified, helpless witnesses.

For those driving regularly on the roads around the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, this is not an uncommon kind of sight. Not a day goes by in this car-crowded state without a fatal car accident. In fact, there’s a popular saying here at the moment which tells that driving in Kurdistan in like fighting on the front lines of a war.

With about one million vehicles in an area populated by 4.5 million people, the region is literally crammed with cars. Importing cars is relatively inexpensive here – with no taxes on imports and no sales or value added taxes, the cost is low compared with neighbouring nations. Late model vehicles flow into the region daily at Iranian and Turkish border crossings – and they’re late model because the regional government has made buying cars older than those manufactured in 2009 too expensive. It is also cheaper for Iraqi citizens to register a car in the Kurdistan region than elsewhere in the country.

This has seen the automotive industry in the state boom over the past few years with a large number of vehicle dealerships of all kinds opening. And because it is generally considered a more secure region than the rest of Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, the state of Kurdistan has also become the base for foreign auto manufacturers wanting to get into business in Iraq. All of which has led to an increased number of cars on the roads – roads that are often crowded, under policed and in need of maintenance.

According to the General Directorate of Traffic in Iraqi Kurdistan, fatalities as a result of road accidents have been increasing annually. In 2009, around 564 people died in road accidents. In 2010, this went up to around 838, with about 12,000 injured. During the first four months of 2011, there have already been around 126 deaths and more than approximately 1,000 injuries. Officials believe the number could actually be far higher as accidents are not always reported to the traffic police, particularly if they occur outside the larger cities.

In the past Qadir Sidiq, the head of the media at the General Directorate of Traffic has blamed speeding, poor road conditions and driver error for the increase in accidents.

However more recently the issue has become a political one, with opposition parties blaming the state government in Iraqi Kurdistan for traffic problems. Reacting to criticisms, the authorities have initiated a variety of measures.

Speed cameras that can be moved from location to location are now in regular use in Iraqi Kurdistan’s larger cities. During a 20-minute interview conducted with a traffic policeman charged with supervising one of the cameras in Erbil, by local English-language newspaper, the Kurdish Globe, the speed camera – one of around 15 in the city - recorded ten speeding violations. The traffic officer said there were between 100 and 200 violations daily.

The High Committee for Issuing Fatwas at the Kurdistan Islamic Scholars Union, the highest Muslim religious authority in Iraqi Kurdistan, also made an effort to help reduce traffic accidents. It issued a fatwa – a religious opinion by Islamic scholars – saying that “Islam orders us to respect public roads and any driver that drives fast or violates road signs, is doing something illegal in the Islamic religion”.

But it’s hard to know whether any of that has had an effect.

Another major issue contributing to traffic problems is the lack of public transport in Iraqi Kurdistan. Erbil’s deputy mayor Tahir Abdullah noted that this required many citizens to own their own cars. “Six years ago there were only 35, 000 vehicles in Erbil city,” Abdullah said. “Now there are 400, 000.”

One of the biggest contributing factors is a lack of public transportation: to get around, locals need their own cars. Currently, apart from a large number of taxis, public transportation in Iraqi Kurdistan’s major cities amounts to a number of privately owned and operated mini-buses. Many of the buses are slow and do not operate regularly or punctually. They also tend not to have any air conditioning which makes using them in the Middle Eastern summer, when temperatures rise well above 40 degrees, rather difficult.

The state’s Ministry of Transport offered private mini-bus owners a grant of US$3,000 so that they can renovate their existing vehicles or buy new ones. While the bus drivers appreciate the effort, many say a new bus is impossible: these cost around US$40,000 in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Erbil Bus driver Dler Mohammed had another suggestion – he felt that the public transport that exists should be organized by one unified authority, rather than dozens of individuals. "A bus transportation system cannot be organized by individuals,” he argued. “There should be one company to do that work.”

In February the state government did actually sign a deal with two companies from Italy and one from Romania to design and build a system of trams in Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. Erbil was to get 60 kilometres worth of tramways, Dohuk 40 kilometres worth and Sulaymaniyah would have 50 kilometres. Dates for completion of the projects, worth over $US6.5 billion, were unclear until further work had been done.

Meanwhile back on the dusty highway just out of Erbil, the dust is clearing. All the cars on the road have slowed to check if anyone needs assistance. A white Toyota van pulls over and young soldiers in uniform climb out, ready to help. Slowly the two young men from the black car emerge from their vehicle, which is now lopsided in a field. They don’t appear to be hurt.

In a state filled with more and more vehicles recklessly hurtling around the countryside and cities, they’re the lucky ones.