|Friday, May 23,2008 10:59|
|By Gamal Essam El-Din|
On Sunday the People"s Assembly voted in favour of amending the 1973 traffic law. The vote followed criticism from opposition MPs and several independent newspapers of the tough penalties contained in the draft bill which could, some argued, ignite social unrest.
"The original bill contained severe penalties, ranging from long mandatory prison sentences to hefty fines," said Hamdi El-Tahan, chairman of the Transport Committee. In response, El-Tahan continued, the assembly"s constitutional and transport committees met last week to review the penalties and introduce measures to help taxi drivers and trailer owners comply more easily with the new regulations. As a result, the law now contains far fewer custodial sentences.
"Prison penalties will be restricted to a limited number of cases, such as using trucks for immoral purposes and driving in the wrong direction," said El-Tahan.
The committee also introduced amendments to Article 4 of the bill. "In its final form," said El-Tahan, "it prohibits the licensing of taxis more than 20 -- rather than 10 -- years old though taxi drivers will be given a grace period of four years to get rid of old vehicles."
"The article also provides for a special fund be established by the Ministry of Transport to provide loans to taxi drivers to help them replace old vehicles. The committee was keen to help alleviate the financial burden the new law places on drivers."
Approval of the amendments to Article 4 was delayed by a surprise announcement by assembly speaker Fathi Sorour that the changes "rang unconstitutional".
"The article discriminates in as much as it does not impose the same rules on private cars as it does on taxis," said Sorour. The article was then referred back to the committee which eventually decided the constitutional objection did not stand.
Deputy Interior Minister Major-General Sherif Gomaa said Article 4 aimed to streamline regulations governing the operation of taxis, particularly in large towns and cities. "Some taxis in Cairo are very old, dating back to the 1960s and even the 1950s, and are a major source of pollution and road accidents," said Gomaa.
Most of the debate, though, was centred on Article 6, which would prohibit the licensing of trailers. El-Tahan said the committee had extended the grace period during which the owners of trailers must replace their vehicles from three to four years "so as not to disrupt the transport system abruptly". A fund will likewise be set up to help owners of trailers buy new trucks.
Muslim Brotherhood MPs objected to the ban on trailers, warning that businesses depended on them for up to 60 per cent of road haulage. "Prohibiting trailers will oblige businesses to shoulder greater costs and hence push prices of basic goods up to the detriment of ordinary consumer," said Brotherhood MP Ahmed Abu Baraka.
Responding to Abu Baraka, Minister of State for Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Moufid Shehab said that Interior Ministry statistics revealed that out of a total of 750,000 transport vehicles currently licensed, there were only 37,000 trailers and 20,000 semi-trailers, the cause of 31 per cent of road accidents in Egypt in 2007. "Trailers are now prohibited in almost every country," said Shehab, who also pointed out that Cairo governorate had banned them from its roads in 1999 in an attempt to reduce the number of road accidents.
El-Tahan also drew the attention of Brotherhood MPs to the fact that Article 6 did not ban semi-trailers and that agricultural trailers will be excluded from the provisions. "Egypt is mainly an agricultural economy and it was important not to prohibit the use of agricultural trailers," he said, contending that their use will be confined to agricultural zones. Under the amendments anyone found driving a trailer after the four-year-grace period will face a fine ranging from LE5,000 to LE20,000 or one month -- down from one year -- in prison.
New regulations will also come into force regulating tok-toks which will henceforth have to meet specifications set by the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Tok-tok owners will be given three months to comply. The vehicles will also be banned in large cities and on major highways and anyone found driving in the prohibited areas will have their vehicles confiscated. Tok-tok licences will only be available in rural areas and small towns.
MPs were in agreement that the new regulations alone will not reduce traffic offences and road accidents. Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin, spokesman of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), said that "hand in hand with the law the Interior Ministry should upgrade traffic systems and the training of traffic police".
NDP MP Mustafa El-Sallab argued that controls on issuing driving licences should be toughened. "The current system is lax, and the result is bad traffic practice," said El-Sallab. He suggested that the Interior Ministry set up a system for validating driving schools that anyone applying for a licence be obliged to attend.
The new bill also increases the minimum age of drivers to 20 instead of 18.