Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Driving in Abu Dhabi

Driving in the Abu Dhabi is, without a doubt, a dangerous endeavor.

On a daily basis drivers encounter selfish driving techniques: reckless overtaking, driving on the hard shoulder, road rage, cutting other people off, excessive speeds, driving too slow in the wrong lane, tailgating, driving while texting, driving while talking on the mobile phone, misuse of hazard lights, flashing of the high beam — the list goes on. The scene in this photograph is a common situation: a driver decides that he needs to overtake you on the hard shoulder while maintaining an illegal speed on the Abu Dhabi highway.

Speeding is the main culprit. Due to the wealth in the country, many Emirati buy expensive sports cars and take advantage of the freeways to drive the cars at excessive speeds. In September of last year, one driver speeding at 250 km/h in a Ferrari and another at 213 km/h in a Bentley were caught on the Abu Dhabi – Dubai highway. A driver speeding at 225 km/h in a Lexus and another doing 222 km/h in a Mercedes were also caught along the same highway. In a separate incident a station wagon, speeding at 204 km/h and a Mercedes speeding at 210 km/h were caught in the Western Region. In all cases, traffic patrols immediately seized the vehicles and referred the drivers to the public prosecution for legal action. Drivers speeding recklessly risk confiscation of their vehicles for 30 days, 12 black points on the driver’s license and a fine of up to Dh2,000 (USD 544).

In March 2010, Abu Dhabi Police installed 300 sophisticated radars called “Snipers” throughout the city in an effort to crack down on traffic violations, predominantly speeding, but in many cases it seems to be useless. One thing that prevents this method from being effective is the lack of care and concern from the drivers themselves. Apparently when you are very rich, traffic tickets do not mean much. Violators pay them and continue driving as before. The government has recently started impounding vehicles when drivers are caught at excessive speeds, (60 KPH over the speed limit). This move came about due to cars being stopped on some of the less congested outer ring freeways around the city traveling at speeds of 200 KPM. The problem with impounding vehicles is that many Emiratis have lots of vehicles so taking one away does not inconvenience them or affect their lifestyle in any way. The government has resorted to revoking driver’s licenses along with impounding vehicles. However, recent studies show that many drivers are not of legal age or have licenses.

The male population seems to be the problem drivers. I witness their recklessness almost daily as I live on a connecting street between two of the most traveled freeways. This street is a three lane stretch on each side with a couple of U turns in the median and is frequently used for one of the young Emiratis favorite pastimes-- street racing. I often see two cars running side by side at high speeds through this residential section of the city racing each other. The racing becomes worse at night as the Emirati tend to be out socializing, shopping, etc. after nightfall.

This month Gulf News reported problems of big time street racing in Dubai where young Emirati take their vehicles to mechanics and have super powered engines installed. One mechanic told Gulf News that sometimes these young men bring in two or three super engines and leave them at his shop knowing that one engine will not last but a weekend or two. Engine modification is prohibited in Dubai, however, 6,000 tickets were issued by Dubai Police for engine modification in 2010. Another 271 tickets were issued for illegal street racing in 2010, which is double the number issued in 2009. There have lately been an increased number of reports about fatal car accidents that involved vehicles with modified engines, some of which have been used in illegal street races in the outskirts of Dubai. Dubai Police Chief recently announced racing on roads might lead to permanent vehicle confiscation and not just impoundment. Good for him! More serious measures need to be taken.

"I don't think there is sufficient awareness in regard of the problem. The youth are reckless and such behavior should be addressed in schools or other educational institutions. There must be a better method of awareness to inform the youth of the danger of their actions," said Maj. Gen. Al Zafein. I agree that more effective measures need to be taken. It seems like revoking a driver’s license for many years might be a deterrent, but again, many of these youngsters have chauffeurs in the family and their mobility would not be hampered by such drastic measures.

Rain or fog does not deter speeders either. Certain times of the year a heavy fog rolls in and visibility is only a few feet ahead. Drivers just turn on their flashers and keep going full speed ahead, changing lanes, hitting their brakes as they run up behind slower drivers. It is a nightmare. Also, many accidents happen every year during this time. Recently during a particularly foggy time, there was a 18 car pileup on the freeway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There was a bad wreck involving a bus with many fatalities last year during the fog. During rain, I witness people deliberately driving reckless in order to make their car fish tail or slide around curves and turns.

A recent study, conducted by the faculty at UAE University and funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, had some alarming results concerning male drivers in the UAE. 576 drivers, between the ages of 18 and 33, were interviewed across the UAE by professors in Psychology and Social Work for a period over one year. The results of the study were as follows:

• 576 Emirati and Arab drivers surveyed of which

• 60% drove below legal age of 18 (including 7.3% between 8-12 years)

• 66% were involved in at least one road accident

• 25% sustained injuries from road accidents

Among the 466 Emirati males surveyed in the study

• 25% regularly exceed speed limits, overtake using wrong lanes, tailgate

• 2.6% almost always jump the red traffic light

• 50% do not regularly use seatbelts and talk on the phone while driving

• 50% stop on inner lanes to chat to other drivers, and drive in the wrong direction on one-way streets

• Most said non-binding safety measures, like using indicators while driving, were considered unpopular

I have seen all of the above actions in this study on the roads in Abu Dhabi. Having been in an accident in Abu Dhabi involving my taxi and a truck, I can testify to the reckless way in which drivers change lanes and exit the freeway. My taxi was in the fourth lane on the right of the freeway when a truck from the sixth outside land attempted to cross all lanes to exit on my right. As you can guess, my taxi hit the truck as it crossed in front of the automobile. My taxi hit the truck at full speed because there was no warning or time to brake. It is a miracle that both of us were not hurt, and I certainly would have received injuries had I not been wearing a seatbelt. I was thrown forward in the backseat of the car. I was restrained by the seatbelt and saved from injury.

One thing that I find most distressing in light of the speeding and reckless driving is the lack of seatbelts and car seats for children. It is not uncommon to see small children standing up in vehicles or hanging out the windows with the car moving at rapid speeds. I often see people holding infants in their lap. I have also observed parents being strapped in their seatbelt but the children moving around the vehicle freely. More emphasis is being placed on this fact and I have seen some campaign advertising promoting the use of car seats for children. I heard recently that the hospitals were now giving them away when people have a baby.

I recently read in Gulf News the government is tighten up the requirements for obtaining a driver’s license in an effort to alleviate the accident rate. I have found that most expatriates from Europe, the United States, and more industrialized nations observe the same traffic rules they are accustomed to in their country. Taxi drivers are also now being trained to use traffic signals, even though they don’t always do so.

Across the UAE over 47,270 vehicles were impounded for a month for excessive speeding in 2009 while 25,862 vehicles were impounded in 2008, according to statistics from the interior ministry. I do not have the answers to eliminate this problem, and it seems, neither do the police even with all their efforts. They are desperately trying.

I believe that the answer lies within the Emirati community---self policing---abiding by laws----conforming to the government system designed for safer roads in Abu Dhabi. Emirati kids could not drive fast cars if parents did not buy them for the kids. Unfortunately, incredible wealth actually enables people to engage in activities that are self-destructive. Monetary fines and impounding cars are obviously not enough. Education and self control are the only two things that will make this problem go away. Emiratis must take responsibility and make take this important step.

Below is a link provided to view video of traffic violations captured by the new cameras around the city. Police have been airing these on television each month in an effort to campaign for better driving and more understanding of traffic laws and consequences for not obeying them.

Photos courtesy of Gulf information obtained from issues of Gulf video obtained from Gulf

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