Local newspapers in Iraq's Kurdistan region describe traffic accidents in the region as "white terrorism." Accidents kill more than two people every day, and they are the third leading cause of death in the province's cities.
Statistics from the Directorate General of Traffic in the Kurdistan region indicate that 567 traffic deaths were recorded in 2012 — including 197 in Erbil, 197 in Sulaymaniyah, 109 in Dohuk, 45 in Garmian and 19 in Soran. More than 3,000 cases of injury were reported, including 969 in Erbil, 1,075 in Sulaymaniyah, 545 in Dohuk, 472 in Soran and 80 in Garmian.
Officials from the Kurdish Ministry of Health noted that of those who are injured, most have severe injuries and become disabled, which results in a heavy burden on their families and health-care institutions.
Statistics show that in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which has a population of about 5 million, there are roughly 1.1 million cars — about one car for every four and a half people. At the same time, the region lacks sound infrastructure for both internal and external roads.
Throughout most of the year, the number of registered cars includes thousands of additional vehicles, from the flow of tourist groups from central and southern Iraq as well as visitors from neighboring countries — particularly Turkey and Iran — traveling in their personal cars.
The region lacks good infrastructure when it comes to roads and bridges, and most of the roads linking major cities are only one-way. Moreover, most internal roads within cities are very narrow. These streets were designed in the 1970s and 1980s, and they do not correspond to the current overpopulation in these cities.
These cities have no means of public transport such as a metro or modern buses, or even trains to link major cities with one another. This forces everyone to use personal cars for daily affairs, and most families — even those composed of only two people — own more than one car.
Cars flow into the region from a number of areas and are available at affordable rates, given the lack of high import duties. In Kurdistan's streets you will find the latest models of Japanese, Korean, American and European cars, as well as cars made in India, Iran and Turkey.
Some attribute the large number of car accidents in Kurdistan to the fact that the region lacks appropriate internal and external roadways to handle such a large number of cars, while others feel that the problem is a result of the government's lax policies for importing cars and granting citizens drivers' licenses.
A few years ago, the provincial government seemingly became aware of the issues surrounding drivers' licenses. Last March, it began applying a strict system they refer to as the "South Korean system." They have taken advantage of South Korea's experience and now grant licenses electronically, and passing the test has become more difficult.
The provincial government is also currently considering issuing new directives for importing cars, in a move to reduce traffic accidents and injuries.
Fathi Mohammed, the advisor for business affairs in the Ministry of Trade and Industry in the Kurdistan Regional Government, said that the government has decided to issue new directives within two weeks to assess the quality of cars that the province wants to import.
He told Al-Monitor that "the committee set up by the provincial government includes four ministries — the ministries of interior, planning, trade and industry and finance." He added, "This committee will be looking for a new mechanism and will issue new directives."
He stressed that the reason for issuing new directives regarding the import of cars is "to improve the quality of cars arriving in the province. Recently, a large shipment of poor-quality cars were imported. Moreover, imported cars must be environmentally friendly."
He added, "These low quality cars lead to more injuries in the event of an accident, and thus we are interested in issuing new import directives that ensure cars are of a high quality, to protect passengers when accidents occur."
Officials from the Public Authority for the Environment point out that "the region has recently experienced high levels of pollution because of the large number of pollution-producing cars."
The Kurdish government officials added, "This committee meets every week. They have not yet issued directives, but are working on reaching a decision in this regard to help improve the quality of cars in the region."
Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in the field of print journalism and radio, he has published several reports in local and world media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).