Teheran orders crackdown as wealthy use ambulances to beat traffic

In a photo taken on Aug 22, 2019, an Iranian couple drive a motorbike past private ambulances in Teheran, Iran. Emergency service vehicles are allowed to run through red lights and have a clear path to their destinations, in one of the world's worst
In a photo taken on Aug 22, 2019, an Iranian couple drive a motorbike past private ambulances in Teheran, Iran. Emergency service vehicles are allowed to run through red lights and have a clear path to their destinations, in one of the world's worst places for traffic jams.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TEHERAN (NYTIMES) - When the phone rang at a private ambulance centre in Teheran, a famous Iranian soccer player was on the line. The operator recognised him instantly and expressed sympathy for the presumed medical emergency in his family.

The soccer star laughed and said nobody was sick. He was requesting a reservation for an ambulance for a day to run errands around the city. He wanted to avoid the choking traffic that can turn a 10-minute ride into a two-hour trek. The money he was offering was equivalent to a teacher's monthly salary.

For wealthy Iranians and even private tutors preparing students for national university exams, hiring an ambulance as one's own private car and chauffeur has become the latest trend in a country with no shortage of time-consuming and frustrating traffic jams.

The practice is illegal. All the ambulance companies reached by phone this past week expressed concern that the abuse of the emergency services vehicles - with their ability to run through red lights and be allowed a clear path to their destinations - would create a serious breach of public trust and impede the speedy transfer of patients to and from medical facilities.

Many Iranians are calling for the authorities to crack down, but the hiring of ambulances for non-emergency purposes continues. The phenomenon spilled into the news this past week when Teheran's head of ambulance services spoke about it, but companies said they have been getting the requests for a year now.

Mr Mahmoud Rahimi, head of Naji private ambulance service in Teheran, which recently received the call from the famous soccer player, said: "Unfortunately, we get these kinds of calls, from rich people and from celebrities like actors and athletes."

Mr Rahimi, who has been in charge of reservations at Naji for 15 years, said the company declines such requests because "our job is to transport sick people".

"We are not a taxi service with a siren for the rich," he said.

Teheran is a city of 14 million, and unregulated construction and development have turned it into one of the world's worst places for traffic jams and the resulting pollution. Major highways can resemble a carpark with stalled vehicles at any hour of the day.

The city has deployed creative methods to curb traffic problems - to no avail. Drivers into central Teheran, for example, require a special permit, and for a while, cars were allowed on the roads only at various times depending on whether the last number in their licence plate was odd or even.

In general, Iranians have become adept at breaking and bending rules. The average citizen has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of some kind with the Islamic Republic for 40 years to defy social and religious restrictions imposed by the authorities, analysts say.

From mandatory hijabs for women in public to bans on alcohol, the mingling of men and women, dancing, satellite television and the use of social media sites, rules are meant to be broken, many Iranians say.

Traffic laws are no exception. Around Teheran, cars routinely speed in the opposite direction on one-way lanes, drive backward on highway exits and blow through speed limits. When a police officer issues a ticket, the first impulse is often to bribe the officer and implore him to tear up the ticket, residents said.

The ambulance scandal, however, may be a step too far - a violation of civic order. The public backlash has been severe on social media and in local newspapers. Many Iranians have criticised the government for its inability to detect and end the ambulance violations.

"What a nightmare. They've ruined the city, the economy, healthcare and now ambulance service," Mr Araz Ghorbanoghli wrote on Twitter.

"Shameless," Mr Ehsan Teymourpour tweeted, accusing celebrities of insulting "hard-working emergency workers".

The head of Teheran's private ambulance services, Mr Mojtaba Loharsebi, told Iranian news outlets this past week that the phenomenon was widespread and not limited to celebrities. Mr Loharsebi said that private tutors regularly used the ambulance as a taxi service to get to their classes on time.

"Police forces in Teheran are so busy that they have not been able to cooperate for ending the illegal trend," he said.

The identity of the celebrities and the private ambulance services violating the law have not been revealed. It is also unclear what measures the ambulances take to make sure the wealthy can travel in the same vehicles used to transport sick or bleeding patients. Calls to more than a dozen private ambulance services in Teheran drew denials that they would take such unorthodox requests.

The business of private ambulance services started about two decades ago in response to a shortage of government ambulances, which respond to emergency calls and transport only critically ill patients to hospitals.

Private ambulance are booked privately with their own reservation systems, and in addition to transporting the critically ill, they offer expanded services such as driving patients to a doctor's office, radiology centre or lab.

One private ambulance service in the city, Behrouyan, said the business of transporting patients was strictly regulated and required permits, as well as a log of each destination. It said the authorities must investigate and crack down on violators in order to restore public trust.

Iranian news outlets reported that Teheran's prosecutor general had issued an order to end the ambulance violations. Police have been told to stop and confiscate ambulances that are found to be transporting people who are not patients, and to refer the company to court.

All the ambulance companies reached by phone expressed concern that the abuse of services would interfere with the transfer of real patients.

Mr Rahimi, of Naji ambulance service, said company drivers had reported an increase in cars refusing to make way for the ambulance.

"People see an ambulance and may think this is not a patient in a life-or-death situation; it's a celebrity going to get a haircut," he said. "They don't pull over to let us pass."

Still, some Iranians reacted to the scandal by joking on Twitter and Facebook that perhaps SNAP, the country's popular taxi app, should start offering an ambulance option.