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Of all the multiple hazards confronting Iran's motorists, camels should pale beside the problems posed by other drivers. This after all is a country whose devil-may-care driving culture produces a horrendous accident rate that accounts for an estimated 25,000 deaths a year.

rferl )- But now the humped-backed creatures more commonly associated with slow-moving desert travel have emerged as an unlikely specter haunting the nation's roads, which frequently resemble race tracks even when traffic is bumper-to-bumper.

Under a new ruling from Iran's judiciary, blood money or compensation rates paid to the families of fatal traffic-accident victims will double from 450 million rial ($42,660) to 900 million rial.

The reason for the whopping increase? The soaring market rate commanded by camels in the Iranian provinces.

Under Iran's interpretation of Islamic law, compensation for a fatal accident victim is supposed to be the equivalent of either 100 camels, 1000 sheep or 200 cows - with quantities of gold or silver, or 200 pieces of Yemeni clothing representing legally recognized alternative barometers of recompense.

Judiciary officials say camel prices are the fairest way of assessing compensation.

Insurance Companies Facing Massive Payouts

But according to the judiciary spokesman, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejaei, there has been a failure to index compensation rates to camel prices in recent years -- meaning awards have been artificially low.

"Unfortunately, during the last few years, the price of camels has been calculated only once," he told reporters at his regular news conference. "Every year, compensation money has increased according to the inflation rate and this calculation has been wrong."

That justification does not impress Iran's insurance companies, which now face the prospect of massively increased payouts when they say they are already stretched to the limit by the alarmingly high number of crashes.

There are worries too that the resulting increase in premiums will prompt many motorists to dodge paying insurance altogether -- leading in turn to a jump in the number of drivers jailed because they are unable to meet blood-money payments.

Equating Drivers And Smokers

The issue has brought the country's (nominally independent) judiciary into conflict with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government, which is being pressed to provide subsidies to the insurance industry to help it cope with the increased demands.

Ahmadinejad has come out against the increase and says he plans to raise the issue with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, the move is being supported by Iran's traffic police and the state-run compensation board on the grounds that it will promote safer driving and reduce the number of deaths on the roads.

As Assidollah Joolaei, head of the compensation board, put it: "The value of human life is so high and has been ignored in the last few years [so] the rise in compensation payments will encourage people to be more careful in driving."

Seemingly equating reckless drivers and smokers, he added: "If the smoking driver saves his cigarette money, he can reduce his insurance fee."

As the Mehr news agency drily observed, he did not address the question of non-smoking drivers.

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