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Many Lebanese bribe their way onto the road.

Byline: Andrew Wander

Summary: When Nassim, a 26-year-old electronic engineering graduate from Beirut, was offered a job soon after leaving university he was delighted. His hard work at college had paid off, and he could finally put all he had learned into practice. There was just one problem. His new employers required him to drive, but he did not hold a license and had never driven a car.

BEIRUT: When Nassim, a 26-year-old electronic engineering graduate from Beirut, was offered a job soon after leaving university he was delighted. His hard work at college had paid off, and he could finally put all he had learned into practice. There was just one problem. His new employers required him to drive, but he did not hold a license and had never driven a car.

Taking his father's advice, Nassim - who did not wish to give his surname - signed up for a driving course with an instructor. When he was asked if he wanted to pay extra for a "guaranteed" license, he was slightly surprised, but politely turned down the offer, instead agreeing to pay a fixed fee for a block of lessons with a test included.E[sz]

Three days after his first lesson, Nassim left the school with a new driving license. His family say they were "astonished." They couldn't understand how he had passed so quickly. When they investigated, it turned out that the driving school had paid a bribe to examiners to have Nassim pass his test.

As far as the instructors were concerned everyone was a winner. They got their money, Nassim got his license and the examiner got his bribe.

There was just one problem. Nassim still couldn't drive a car. He was forced to return to the school after passing his "test" to take the driving lessons he had paid for. It took another three weeks of tuition before he felt safe enough to venture onto the roads.

Nassim's story is one of thousands that demonstrate the endemic corruption in Lebanon's driving licensing system, which campaigners say is making millions of illicit dollars every year and putting unsafe drivers on the roads. A health and safety watchdog, the Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA), is leading a campaign to reform laws in an effort to stamp out the illicit "selling" of driving licenses, which they say has made Lebanese driving tests "among the worst in the world."E[sz]

Under current laws a re-test costs around $100, far more than the $40 needed to bribe an examiner to ensure a pass. YASA says the high prices for driving tests are encouraging students to pay for "guaranteed" licenses, and they have suggested a new funding structure which would make re-tests much cheaper than bribes.

Even if there is no direct payment made by the learner driver, driving schools often pay bribes on their behalf, building in the cost of the corruption to the price of the course to ensure they maintain high pass rates. It is a policy which is putting hopelessly inexperienced drivers on Lebanon's roads, with YASA warning that some new drivers have passed their tests with less than two hours experience behind a wheel.

They say the corruption has become so widespread that it is now impossible to pass a driving test without paying a bribe. "The current 0-2 percent failure rate are the ones who don't pay the bribes," says YASA's founder, Ziad Akl. "Millions of dollars are collected by the mafias behind this. We are calling for a law that will increase the registration fee and decrease the test fee, with no overall increase in cost for the learner driver. The current laws no longer function."

Akl wants to see the introduction of a "points system" that would see repeatedly dangerous drivers banned from the roads. The new law would also introduce a medical examination into the driving test, and the license itself will be subject to renewal. But he warns that political figures who are gaining from the corruption were opposed to changing the law. "The corruption is spread through political parties. YASA faces huge pressure from those benefiting from it."

The dangers of allowing poorly trained drivers onto Lebanon's crowded roads are obvious. In 2007, 870 people were killed on Lebanon's roads, with a further 11,400 seriously injured. The same year, YASA was able to obtain driving licenses for two blind men to demonstrate the total lack of screening applied to many driving test candidates. They even obtained a license for a girl who had died in a road accident - after she had been killed.

Hani Koubeissi, the director of the Driver Improvement Program at YASA says that corruption has a "serious impact"" on accident rates. "If everyone can just get behind a wheel and drive, then they are a big hazard to themselves and others," he says. "Anyone can make a car move, but only a good driver can do it safely." He wants to see the new law adopted as quickly as possible.

Akl says Parliament will vote on the new law early next year. "It is in process, but there are political groups supporting the corruption. They don't want a new law. We have support from the Lebanese civil society, and we are counting a lot on justice. We are ready to work to reform the terrible situation in Lebanon."

Copyright E 2008, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Oct 13, 2008
Words:912
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