Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | January 24, 2011

Kuwait 2030: Traffic Sanity

For males in Kuwait, traffic accidents are the second leading cause of death (after heart disease) with about 40 deaths per 100,000. For women, the number is much less at 8 deaths per 100,000. Something is very wrong with that number and it scares the hell out of me. Driving in Kuwait is more dangerous than the risk of cancer. Reducing traffic accidents would have the same effect as curing cancer. Imagine that.

Traffic Sanity:

If we can bring the risk of death for males down to the more normal level of women we would save the lives of 300 people every year, people you know and love. Sadly, everyone knows a dear friend or a family member that died in an accident. These are mostly preventable deaths and it’s a disgrace that this is not our highest national priority. There are an average of 453 traffic fatalities per year.

There have been some good steps taken to get us on the right track. The National Traffic and Transport Sector Strategy 2009-2019 for Kuwait’ has some good ideas about smart data collection. They propose reforming the way police officers collect accident data so that the information is standardized and includes GPS coordinates of the events. That way they can create a detailed map with a historical record of where accidents frequently occurred so they can identify ‘black spots’ which are high frequency accident areas. Those are good ideas, but I don’t think they’re radical enough. We need more. What do I want by 2030?

  • Traffic related deaths to plummet from 400 per year to 100.
  • Foolproof anti-speeding system
  • Web based, real time traffic map
  • The ability to choose a car free lifestyle

I think these are all realistic and achievable goals and the technology exists today to make it happen. The steps we need to take are somewhat drastic but necessary to solve the problem:

  1. Blanket the country with average speed cameras.
  2. Link the data collected by the cameras with an open-source traffic map API so cars, phones and computers have access to a real time map showing traffic on all major roads.
  3. Since average speed cameras use infra red, you wouldn’t know when you were caught speeding. No flash. To avoid this, cars would be linked with the mobile phone number of the owner and receives an SMS every time they get caught.
  4. Traffic police to install cameras on their dashboard to record what goes on and any harassment of police officers that might occur. Yes, it happens.
  5. Implement NIRIS, which is the system I mentioned about accident data collection reform.
  6. Sticker prices of cars must include the cost of petrol that the car would consume in a year.
  7. Cameras everywhere and especially at ‘black spots’ and highway overpasses to stop dangerous driving such as overtaking on one lane flyovers. I’m sure there’s a way to automate the system so that dangerous driving could be flagged and a police car alerted to the situation.
  8. Very slow driving should be penalized as heavily as speeding and can result in revoked licenses.
  9. A congestion pricing system for traffic going in and out of the city during rush hour. If it costs 1KD every time you go into or out of Kuwait City during rush hour, you’d see a lot more people using public transportation. See Salik in Dubai.
  10. Gradually and loudly reduce and eventually abolish the fuel subsidy. This will make it more expensive to drive and incentivize people to use public transport. The revenue generated will be given back to Kuwaitis as a rebate. If you drive less, you still get the same amount as someone that drives a lot more, so you might profit.
  11. Invest a lot more in public transport infrastructure; buses, bus stops with real time maps of where the buses are (it’s so easy to do once you have the data), the metro, real bus lanes, better pedestrian safety. Make it easy for people to live without a car and they will drive less.

The situation today allows people to speed without consequence. Everyone knows how to game the system. We have to make it so hard to avoid punishment that it becomes practically impossible to get away with speeding. Current camera technology can allow us to do that. We can stop speeding on major roads and that’s generally considered the main cause of fatal accidents. Awareness and marketing campaigns are useless and do nothing but waste time and money. We need strict rule enforcement and penalties. Nothing else works.

Our ultimate goal should be to reduce fatalities, ease traffic and lower pollution. A comprehensive plan should include investing in alternative modes of transportation as well as better driver education during licensing and strict penalties and enforcement. In the end this has to be a serious national project. I want to constantly see giant numbers on buildings and newspapers showing the average number of deaths in the past year and to show that number go down every week. This is way more important that petty political squabbles and insignificant pay rises. We can sort of cure cancer.



  1. Hi Barrak,

    I agree with you that any efforts to reduce traffic casualties that don’t include enforcement procedures “with teeth” will be useless, but I don’t agree with you that campaigns are useless and do nothing but waste time and money. In practice, this may be true, but in theory, Kuwait really needs a strong education campaign on road safety to cause a norm shift in future populations on the importance of driving safe, and the idea that driving unsafe presents a negative externality to others. What really struck me in Kuwait was seeing, for example, children playing in the backseat without any seatbelts, mothers putting their infants on their laps while driving or nannies being placed in the trunks of cars due to a lack of space. Of course, you need to have stronger enforcement so police place fines on this, but a large part of this issue comes from lack of awareness on behalf of parents. With this norm shift, society will begin to stigmatize reckless behavior more and more, much like most societies have seen a progressive evolution of attitudes towards littering. In many countries, people think twice about littering not because of the fine they might get, but rather because of how they feel they will be negatively perceived by others. The norm has been internalized and no longer needs external enforcement.

    We also have to acknowledge the whole blipped-up social context underlying these road tragedies. Young people drive in cars to race and do stunts as well as to try to interact and flirt with others. I really feel that this reliance on the road is a result of the lack of alternative public spaces available for young people. Even the liberation day celebrations occur on the Gulf Road, rather than in a main square, for example. I just think these two points a) education in future generations b) shifting the reliance of the road in the built environment, are two underlying needs.

  2. I do agree with every word you have written. If i may add the opening of a Quarter Mile and a Closed Circuit Racetrack may also greatly reduce the urge to speed in public roads, instead they can speed with safety inside the tracks.

    Great Post :D.

  3. I almost got hit on the road today due to a reckless driver who fancied continual zig-zagging. The police car (with a cop inside) was stationed to the side of the road and I reckon witnessed everything but too lazy to budge. I suggest we recycle the whole police squad in Kuwait.

  4. Agree with all that but how about getting serious about mobile phone use whilst driving as well ? Every other driver in Kuwait is on the phone despite its being supposedly illegal

  5. Salaam.

    I have only just arrived in Kuwait on a short visit, but I have already experienced the country’s infamously awful traffic culture as both a pedestrian and as a car occupant.

    I feared for myself, but most especially for my two children. It was truly nerve-wracking even to take a short walk to the beach. This necessitated crossing several wide high-speed roads where no traffic calming or crosswalks were provided.

    The legal speed limit was clearly a suggestion only and was probably too high for a residential area anyway, especially where there was an amenity nearby that would attract people to visit, some of them on foot.

    When you see photos of cars smashed into poles on the footways and traffic islands, as I have, you realise that it is not safe even to walk beside the road, never mind across it.

    The number one hazard, as I see it, is speed. As a pedestrian I have never witnessed such fast and reckless driving. It was terrifying to cross four lanes with my children (two lanes in either direction separated by a traffic island) with the feeling that a car could appear at any moment driving at motorway speed.

    It is simply crazy that such high speed driving is permitted in a built-up area. The equivalent in my country would be for pedestrians to be allowed to walk alongside a motorway. Clearly that would be madness, but the answer is not to ban pedestrians but to reduce speed limits, enforce the law and provide infrastructure to improve pedestrian safety (and road safety generally).

    Unfortunately, it seems clear that Kuwait is designed to maximise car use and minimise restrictions on motorists. One one stretch of major road I saw several police cars parked with the blue lights flashing. The officers were sitting in their vehicles or strolling up and down while chatting on their mobile phones. I have seen no speed cameras and no evidence that any motorist is worried about breaking road traffic law or being caught doing so.

    Nominal speed limits and a zero Blood Alcohol Concentration for driving are all very well, but until the roads are engineered to slow traffic down and enforcement of rational speed limits is rigorously and routinely carried out, road deaths will remain high.

    The absence of pedestrian facilities in particular is a sick joke. It is clear that only poor people and the mentally deranged are expected to walk anywhere, or to take the bus. The only cyclists I saw were a man and two children cycling against the flow of traffic on a two-lane highway with a (nominal) 80 km/h speed limit!

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