BEIRUT: At 5 p.m. in Bir Hasan, just south of Beirut, an instructor guides a young girl as she backs up in an old Datsun.
For Fadi, an instructor at one of the city’s many driving institutes, it is just another day at work. He has spent the last 20 years teaching students how to drive.
But his experience does not exempt him from a training program for driving instructors, mandated by the new traffic law that went into effect Wednesday.
“They want someone who has been in this business for 40 or 50 years to take a training session, but this is a problem,” Fadi explained, stopping the conversation every now and then to give instructions to his student.
“I don’t mind attending the session but I think it is a waste of time. I think only new instructors should take a training session,” he told The Daily Star. “I already have enough experience to teach students.”
Fadi also expressed his concerns that after undergoing the training, some instructors would be prohibited from the profession if they did not meet certain qualifications.
“I have confidence in my performance, but will they be fair with us? You also know that connections in Lebanon [determine] the final say. Instructors with certain connections could have an advantage over others,” he said.
The stated goal of the training program is to improve the performance of driving instructors and ensure that they are qualified to practice their profession.
Hoda Salloum, chair of the board of directors of the Traffic Management Committee, said the body has asked owners of driving institutes in Lebanon to provide them with the names of instructors who would attend the training sessions.
She told The Daily Star the committee was still working to finalize the date and duration of the program.
Asked whether all instructors would be allowed to continue working after taking the training program, or whether a specific number would be selected, Salloum said a final decision had yet to be made.
According to the new 420-article law, individuals who want to become driving instructors must now hold a traffic degree, a certification given after completion of a two-year program that will be offered by the General Directorate of Vocational and Educational Training in the upcoming academic year.
Under the old law, any individual who passed the driving test on vehicles of different weights could become a driving instructor.
The new legislationalso stipulates new requirements for driving institutes, many of which currently consist of one-room offices for processing paperwork.
The schools must now have at least two rooms, one of which is designated for teaching and should accommodate desks and chairs. The minimum dimensions of the rooms will be specified by the National Council for Traffic Safety at a later date, but the council, nominally headed by the prime minister, has yet to be formed.
After taking lessons, students must pass a theoretical exam and a driving test before receiving a driver’s license. Licenses issued before the application of the new law remain valid until further notice.
The new regulations are a major source of concern for the owners of driving institutes.
Afif Abboud, head of the Association of the Owners of Driving Institutes, questioned how owners could afford to rent or purchase another room given the skyrocketing price of real estate.
“How could the owner of a driving institute in Hamra, for example, secure a second room?” Abboud asked, pointing to the high property prices in the commercial district.
“I think that if the owner had enough money to buy another room, he would [already] have abandoned this business altogether. I believe that more than 60 percent of driving institutes will not be able to [afford] a second room.”
Abboud stated that although there were around 590 driving institutes in Lebanon, only 310 renewed their licenses in 2014, indicating many did not even abide by the requirements of the old law.
He also claimed that some of the new law’s stipulations did not make sense. For instance, it requires individuals who want to take the driving exam to pay an exam fee and license fee together, in advance.
“How can a person pay the license fee when he has not taken the exam yet?” Abboud asked.
He also complained about the harsh punishments stipulated by the law for some traffic violations.
The new system, which will be phased in gradually, divides violations into five categories.
The heaviest punishments are given for category 5 offenses, including driving more than 60 kilometers per hour over the speed limit, driving without a license, and driving under the influence.
Those found guilty can have their car impounded, be fined up to LL3 million, or be sentenced to up to two years in prison. “Even a drug dealer does not receive a two-year sentence,” Abboud said.
Omar Abul-Khudud, owner of a driving institute in Beirut, complained that the new law did not detail the size of the rooms required for a driving school.
“We don’t know the exact dimensions of the rooms. My institute comprises two floors, 4 meters by 4 meters each,” he said, adding that he would have to pay much more in rent if forced to move to a larger office.
Salloum noted that not all driving institutes were of the same standards, adding that some could be merged into new driving schools. “The time has come to start implementing the new law; we cannot keep adhering to the old system.”
The law also allows individuals to take the driving test on cars with automatic transmissions, though it would be mentioned on their license that they are only authorized to drive an automatic. Under the old law, all tests were done on stick shifts, despite the fact that most Lebanese now drive automatics.
As part of the new system, governors will designate portions of public roads for driving lessons, a move which Fadi praised. “Look at the state of the roads where we are giving our lessons,” he said.
The road in Bir Hasan where some instructors give lessons is open for normal traffic, and runs through a busy area.
“I hope only the fair articles of this new law will be implemented; there are many unfair ones.”