Stories from Afar & Up Close

On Diminishing the Decorative Value of Traffic Lights

We were once on the way to Jezzine, a town in the mountainous area of South-West Lebanon, when we hit a stretch in the road that had recently been repaved. Smooth, black tarmac for what seemed kilometers on end, with brand new road surface marking; clear, thick, white stripes on both sides of the road and in the middle. ‘Wow,’ said Walid, ‘look at this road, it’s almost European, so beautiful!’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and it seems they even put the correct stripes in the correct places! Double, uninterrupted lines in dangerous bends, and single dashed ones on straight stretches.’ ‘Wait…’ was the incredulous answer, ‘road markings have a meaning..?’

Well yes, they do, although I am not surprised that this is little-known fact among Lebanese drivers. Traffic here is notorious, and my friends used to tell me that ‘traffic lights are for decorative purposes only.’ But now that the Minister of Interior has decided to try to actually regulate Lebanese traffic, it is slowly dawning on people that it might be useful to know some rules. Rules such as speed limits, which to the surprise of many are different inside and outside the city.

Currently, he has invited some French policemen to train their Lebanese colleagues in traffic-control. I remember when I was taking driving lessons in the Netherlands; we would go to a busy intersection where students from the police academy would train in regulating traffic, because it was the best place to learn the many different positions of hands and arms and all the different directions the traffic police was giving with them. In Lebanon, the poor policeman in the middle of the road only has two orders to give: Stop! or Go! And for both of these he can use any type of gesture he wants to convey the message.

The newspaper reports how the French-Lebanese training-sessions are going; they spent some time with a pair of them on one of the major roads in the city. At one moment, the French policeman has signaled a bus-driver to stop, and the bus-driver has obeyed his orders – only about 6 meters too late, right in the middle of the intersection. The French policeman explains to the bus-driver where he was supposed to stop; a few meters earlier, before the traffic lights and the pedestrian crossing. The Lebanese policeman translates for him. The bus-driver looks over at the French policeman, shrugs, and says with a smile: ‘Ala rassi’ – which in this situation means so much as ‘sure man, no problem.’

I hope the Minister of Interior is a very, very patient man.