Why not all in Iran celebrate the Iranian New Year

While Nowruz is a relaxing 13-day holiday for most Iranians, the high number of road fatalities makes Nowruz also a time of sadness for many.

al-monitor Iranian women ride in a taxi in the run-up to the Persian New Year in Esfahan, March 18, 2008. Many Iranians use personal cars to travel long distances during the Nowruz holiday, with bad driving habits and poor roads leading to a high rate of fatal accidents. Photo by FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images.
Saeid Jafari

Saeid Jafari

@jafariysaeid

Topics covered

transportation, cars, road safety, iranian society, tourism, travel, nowruz

Apr 6, 2017

TEHRAN — Most countries around the world ring in the new year Jan. 1. Iranians, however, celebrate their new year, known as Nowruz, on the first day of spring. This is followed by a 13-day holiday, which this year began March 21 and ended April 2. The holiday may last as long as 20 days for some, as it is not rare for Iranians to begin their break five days prior to the new year and go back to work two days after the holiday officially ends. While the Nowruz holiday is a great time to relax, it triggers sad memories for some.

Indeed, Nowruz road accidents are nothing new in Iran. However, the severity of the situation has prompted the country’s Legal Medicine Organization to designate a part of its website to the issue, providing visitors with graphs of Nowruz road fatalities compared with other causes of deaths, such as suicide, homicide and electrocution.

According to these graphs, an average of 50 people a day lost their lives in Nowruz road accidents in recent years. On average, 48 people were killed daily during the first 20 days of the Iranian New Year in 2015 and 2016, with a total of 968 road fatalities being reported for Nowruz 2015 alone. In 2014, the average number of daily deaths was estimated at 54.

In light of the high Nowruz death toll, it should be noted that the number of travelers spikes during the holiday. In April 2015, Masoud Soltanifar, then-head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, said that there were some 15 million Nowruz travelers in Iran, out of a population of some 80 million.

But what is the root cause of the high rate of road accidents in Iran? A poll published by Khabaronline in September showed that most respondents see human error as the principal cause. The website conducted another poll on March 23, in which 44% of respondents once again described human error as the main reason behind the accidents.

Those polled also pointed to the poor quality of the roads, absence of sufficient highways and the low safety level of some vehicles as other possible causes. However, the main factor was believed to be human error and the lack of caution on the part of drivers.

Even senior clerics have intervened to try to cut the high death toll on Iran’s roads. Last week, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi said, “Violating traffic laws is a sin and following these rules is a religious duty." He made a similar call in 2014, when he said, “Driving while tired and sleepy, illegally passing other cars and running red lights are haram [religiously impermissible]."

So why are there so many road fatalities in Iran if the public is seemingly aware that human error and poor driving are the root causes of the problem? Despite a minor drop in the number of road fatalities in recent years, particularly during the Nowruz holiday, the Iranian media and public seem to have become more aware of the need for change.

On March 10, government officials launched the No to Road Accidents campaign, which is gradually catching on as actors, artists and athletes joined in by making video clips or publishing posts on social media to ask the public to drive more carefully during the holidays. This is the second year that such a campaign has been launched as a result of Nowruz accidents. However, more measures seem to be needed to reduce the number of road fatalities.

On March 29, Iran’s deputy police chief, Brig. Gen. Eskandar Momeni, said, “Although the numbers of Nowruz road accidents and fatalities have declined compared with last year, the figure is still high with one person losing their life on the road every 71 minutes. According to statistics, this figure was one person every 60 minutes last year.” He added, "The decrease in this year’s Nowruz accidents comes despite more trips taken this year compared with previous years and rain or snow on most roads across the country."

Another reason for the high rate of road accidents in Iran is perhaps the Iranian people’s preference to travel in their own vehicles. In a Feb. 23 article, Iran Daily asked people how they preferred to travel during Nowruz, with most saying their own car was the preferred option. A report by the Statistical Center of Iran also found that more than half of Iranians are in favor of using their own car as opposed to public transportation for Nowruz travels. Low gasoline prices are perhaps another reason why Iranians opt for traveling with their own cars. Gas prices in Iran are about $0.52 per liter, or $1.97 per US gallon.

Hamid Hamidian, who runs a business in the Tehran Bazaar, told Al-Monitor, “The main reason I use my own car instead of planes is their lack of safety. Traveling with a plane is easier and faster, but the planes are old and this worries me. On the other hand, sitting on a bus or train makes the trip longer and more exhausting.”

Abbas Bahari, a retired teacher, told Al-Monitor, “It is natural that I prefer my own car for traveling. [This way] I can decide when to leave and come back; I can assert my family’s independence and peace of mind, and enjoy the trip more.”

Comfort and peace of mind aside, Iranian travelers still have to get to their holiday destinations on roads ranked as among the deadliest in the world. The question is what, beyond more campaigns, fatwas and better infrastructure, could ultimately do the trick.

Fahime Hasan Miri, a veteran journalist covering social affairs in Tehran, told Al-Monitor, “A key reason [for the high road fatalities] is the lack of proper and sufficient education among the public. We do not have adequate instructions on proper driving.”

She added, “Maybe it is necessary to focus on forging this culture [of awareness of traffic laws] from a young age through the education system. And in a more general sense, children should be taught to respect citizens’ rights while in school.”

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