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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Speed Demons

by Zac Sharpe

© Anwar Mirza | Lucky Escape: This driver was pulled from a crash in Sharjah only seconds before his car exploded. Many other drivers have not been so fortunate
© Anwar Mirza | Death Plunge: Excessive speed is a big cause of accidents on the UAE's roads, as the owner of this vehicle found out after his car crashed into a ravine
© Anwar Mirza

In the UAE there is a higher chance of being killed on the road than by any other single cause of death. The unambiguous fact is that the United Arab Emirates is the most dangerous country in the developed world in which to drive.

The carnage is such that it has prompted authorities to introduce a rash of new laws, such as the long-overdue seat belt rule, in a bid to save lives, money and peace of mind of the many of road users in this nation.

Statistics are often condemned as misleading or as an inaccurate reflection of reality. But in the Emirates’ they make compelling and chilling reading.

Almost 600 people die on the roads in the UAE every year, an unparalleled statistic for a country of this size. Studies conducted at the UAE University showed that the road fatality rate for every 100,000 people in the UAE stood at 23.68. In the Untied Kingdom the corresponding figure was just 9.7, about 60 percent lower than in the UAE.

Other indicators are no less incriminating. The UAE also tops the death rate when it comes to accident-related fatalities per 100,000 vehicles. Around 130 deaths are recorded annually here, compared to only 20.25 in the US and 21.4 in the UK.

This statistic quells the argument of those who would say there are more road deaths locally because there are relatively more cars on the road.

The UAE’s driving record suggests it should lose its collective license.

Dr Abdulbari Bener, an associate professor at the Department of community medicine at the faculty of Medical Health Sciences, conducted the study and a man mortified at the number of lives being lost on the roads. “Traffic accidents have been the largest cause of death in this country since 1991. Only the collective grouping of a range of cardio-vascular diseases exceeds the volume of deaths caused on the roads,” said Dr Bener.

“This clearly supports the view that the enforcement of the mandatory seat belt rule for drivers and front seat passengers was very much needed”, he said.

But unfortunately for the lawmakers, much of the problem on the roads stems not from inadequate policing or laws but from the immature and reckless attitudes of drivers.

Somewhat perversely, the modern infrastructure of the UAE and the modern fleet of cars on the roads contribute to the poor record of the country’s drivers rather than helping to improve it.  

Cars older than seven years are something of a rarity because of the relative wealth of this population and the low cost of new cars. And five lane highways and excellent road links between cities should offer drivers ideal driving conditions. Improved safety standards and technological improvements such as air bags and anti-lock brakes should all add up to safer roads. But the roads that were designed to cater for a rapidly growing population are being used as a raceway rather than a motorway.

More than 70 per cent of road fatalities involve drivers aged between 20 and 30 years – a grim illustration of the price of youthful impetuosity. The sense of invincibility responsible for young people being involved in a higher population of accidents than other age groups is a familiar scenario the world over. But it is less clear why one national group features so prominently in traffic accidents in the UAE.

Nationals are involved in almost 35 per cent of all traffic accidents, at least double the proportion of the general population. And again the younger generations are the worst offenders.

Police have responded to this crisis by increasing their presence on major highways and adding more mobile radar units to screen for speeding motorists.

Major Mohammed Saif Al Zafeen, Dubai Police traffic department director, acknowledged the situation was getting worse rather than better.

“The number of fatal highway accidents is increasing and all of them are caused by people driving too fast”, he said.

The average winning Nascar racing driver this year hurtled around the track at an average speed of 199 km/h in a specially designed car, with other highly trained drivers on a specially constructed, banked oval track.

The speeds attained on Sheikh Zayed Road and other highways are comparable to those seen on the Nascar circuit.

“Most motorists on the Sheikh Zayed Road travel at speeds ranging from 140 to 20 km/h. Most offenders are drivers who use the highways as racetracks”, said Al Zafeen.

“Statistics have shown that 15 per cent of all reported traffic accidents in Dubai took place on Sheikh Zayed Road and about a quarter of all accidents happen on major highways such as the Al Ain and Hatta roads,” he said. Anyone familiar with driving on the highways f Dubai would also be acquainted with the frightening sensation of being unexpectedly overtaken by a car traveling at barely sub-sonic speed in the emergency lane.

Police recently began to enforce strict rules regarding this practice and driving on the hard shoulder. Patrols in unmarked cars are monitoring the main roads and the culprits they identify face large fines and, more seriously, the impounding of their car.

About 350 such offenses are reported each week. Second time offenders face an even more onerous penalty – having to re-sit their driving test. According to Lt. Colonel Suweidi, deputy director of Dubai Traffic Department, the violators will also have to pay Dhs 3,000 in administration fees.

“The offenders will have to take lessons with an approved driving school and take practical and theoretical classes on how to respect the traffic law,” he said.

If recklessness is a major cause of the accidents, which cause fatalities, ignorance is a major contributor to people dying needlessly.

Despite media-saturation, advertising and awareness campaigns informing people of the introduction of the seat belt law at the beginning of last month many chose, at their peril, to ignore the rule.

More than 3,100 drivers were fined within the first week of the rule covering the front sear passenger and driver taking affect. Studies revealed only six per cent of drivers wore seat belts before the rule was introduced, although a majority of drivers now stop themselves in.

Anecdotal evidence based on discussions with private taxi drivers would suggest many people under-estimated the damage wrought in a car accident.

“Driving around the city you do not go fast enough to cause major injury. I don’t go faster that about 90 km/h anyway,” said taxi driver Ahmed Abdullah.

“I find seat belts too restricting and don’t really see the need for one in Dubai anyway. I am a careful and slow driver so will not have an accident,” said another taxi driver, oblivious to the reckless drivers around him who could cause an accident.

These sentiments were commonly expressed but ignored the seemingly obvious physics dictating that two cars hitting each other at 80 km/h represented an actual collision impact of 160 km/h.

Many drivers are not aware that serious head injuries and death can result from the force of a crash at 50 km/h. Several drivers expressed similar views, with their estimated safe driving speed ranging from 60 to 110-km/ h.

But Colonel Al Suweidi of Dubai Police revealed the prospect of a fine had been far more persuasive than the campaigns aimed at educating and raising awareness among the city’s drivers of the value of using seat belts.

“The situation is now crystal clear and people will simply have to get used to wearing seat belts the moment they get into the car,” he said.

While the seat belt law is an obvious measure to be taken in a country which such a reliance on the car, other rules have also been introduced with a view of saving lives.

Following a similar more in Britain, it is now compulsory for heavy transport vehicles to have side and rear impact barriers fitted.

The regular and sickening sight of a small passenger vehicle pinned beneath a heavy lorry has prompted the more which has a two-fold safety benefit.

The solid metal guardrails are designed to withstand a high impact collision from a car, which prevents the smaller vehicle being trapped underneath.

This gives rescue workers more space to work to free occupants of the crushed vehicle and prevents injuries. It can also help in avoiding the fuel-fed which are often the result of cars slamming into the fuel lines and tanks on the underside of the truck.

Much debate has surrounded the argument over who exactly is permitted to drive on the roads in the UAE. Of the large expatriate community living in the country, only a selected number of countries are permitted to transfer their license over directly.

The rest, most notably the sub-continent community, have to sit for their test under strict conditions.

While many of the expatriates argue that the testing procedure is often unfair, costly and the queues lengthy, still others are thankful for the rigid criteria.

Irish expatriate public relations consultant, James Mueller, has recently started driving lessons in a bid to gain a driving license for the first time. He described the ability of many of those at the driving centers as “highly amusing”.

“ I wouldn’t recommend many of the people down there to operate a pop-up toaster,” he said. “ The number of comical driving sequences you see is quite alarming, at least when you think they may end up on the roads with the public,” he added.

Presenting an alternative view of the process however was Ibrahim, a Pakistani clerk hoping to improve his mobility by passing his driving test. “I think it is fair that the test be strict but you rarely get any feedback as to what you did wrong.”  

In Abu Dhabi one in five applicants passes the driving test, an improvement on the 15 per cent rate before drivers had to prove they had been to an approved driving school.

“ If an applicant scores over 75 per cent he passes, but if he scores less he is deemed to be a danger to other road users and himself,” said a representative of the traffic branch.

“But we’re now getting more applicants who can drive well and are aware of the traffic rules so they pass the test. The testing officials have strict criteria to apply and always inform people what they have done wrong so they can rectify it,” he added.

For those who do pass their driving test many dangers lurk around the corner, especially for the impatient and ignorant.

Those who speed but somehow manage to avoid an accident are more than likely to fall victim to the speed-trap camera.

In Dubai alone more that 21,000 speeding infringements are clocked up every month. Another 600 motorists can expect to be charged with reckless driving and the same again for overtaking in a dangerous manner. Another 350 will be charged with driving too close to the car in front, an area the authorities have begun policing with vigor.

Road tolls are one of the unfortunate but accepted realities of living in the modern world. The significance of this toll in the UAE, however, far outweighs anything resembling acceptability. The police and government have justifiably increased their presence on the roads and the introduction of new traffic and safety laws will surely save lives.

But it is the attitude and common sense of road users, which will need to change if the population of the UAE is to fear, dying of old age rat

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