WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers has prompted some pretty outrageous justifications — and that was before last weekend’s demonstrations, in which 60 women got behind the wheel in a rolling protest. One leading Saudi cleric argued that women ran the risk of damaging their ovaries and pelvises when they drove cars, increasing the possibility of giving birth to children with “clinical problems.” But perhaps none of these reasons are more ludicrous than the one charging that female drivers would increase car accidents. The Kingdom actually has one of the planet’s worst safety records. Indeed, the biggest argument against the ban could be Saudi drivers’ atrociously high road accident death toll, consistently rating among the highest in the world.
According to the most recent World Health Organization figures, Saudi Arabia has the 21st-highest road-related death toll in the world, but that number becomes even more exceptional when you look at the group of countries that are faring worse. The countries with the worst fatalities are overwhelmingly low-income countries, with the South Pacific island of Niue registering the highest number. The fact that a lot of these countries struggle with basic road infrastructure and an inadequate police force to enforce traffic laws makes the number in Saudi Arabia, a wealthy country, even more striking.
Saudi Arabia has the highest accident-related death toll among high-income countries.
A 2013 study by the Kingdom’s General Directorate of Traffic found that 19 people die per day in traffic-related fatalities in Saudi Arabia, predicting that if current rates continue, by 2030, 4 million people will die annually in a car accident there. The biggest reason for the high rates is simply reckless driving — the report has found in past years that a third of all car accidents in the Kingdom are cause by drivers jumping red lights, and 18 percent were caused by illegal u-turns. In an interview with Arab News in September, the associate vice president and transportation systems director of Middle East Operations at traffic management consultancy Iteris Inc., Glenn N. Havinoviski, said infrastructure wasn’t an issue, but “when you see people turning left out of the far right lane and traffic cutting through parking lots and frontage roads, there are clearly some issues with discipline.”