April 26, 2012
Dubai has the third-highest death rate from traffic accidents in the world preceding neighbouring countries Saudi Arabia and Oman. Living in this large, complex and culturally rich-metropolitan city has its challenges. One of them is speed.
Recently, a friend told me of a 21-year-old Pakistani girl, whom she knew, who had died in a freak accident on her way to work in Abu Dhabi, travelling on a familiar route she had taken for the past five years. The car, she says —and evident by pictures in the local newspaper — displayed gruesome damage almost as if run-over by a bull-dozer, except that she had actually run into a tree.  In 2010, Emirates 24-7, a UAE-based newspaper reported that there was a car accident every 4.5 minutes in Abu Dhabi. Dubai’s third deadliest highway, Sheikh Zayed road, was home to a 150-car collision in 2008, the worst ever in its history, that killed four people and injured over 300. In March this year, a nine year-old boy was killed in a traffic accident when a car moving at high speed crashed into the stationery car and the boy was thrown out of the window — he died instantly.The Shariah law is practiced in Dubai and in case of severe injury of victims in accidents, the accused stands to wait in jail, his/her fate decided by the fate of the victim. If the victim dies and if his/her family agrees, they can be paid blood money or dhiyya to redeem the accused. There is no trial.In 2009, an intriguing case of blood money was reported when a Lebanese woman, who was also nine-months pregnant, was fined USD 540 blood money for ‘accidentally’ killing her fetus in a traffic accident. The blood money was paid to the fetus’ ‘successors’. In a cruel twist of fate the mother not only had to grieve her unborn child’s traumatic demise but she had to grudgingly deal with the moral complexities of being ‘accidentally’ responsible for the alleged crime.
Since 2007, in an attempt to control alarming accident figures, the Dubai police actively undertook a stringent accident-combating program — in 2007, 332 deaths were caused by car accidents alone. Some of these measures include a Western point-system on traffic penalties, whereby accumulation beyond a limit could lead to license confiscation. Traffic laws were amended to include punishments for driving under the influence of alcohol — a zero-tolerance law. And depending on the severity of the accident, a jail-term could range from a couple of months to three years, and fines could total between Dhs 20,000 to 30,000. As part of an aggressive campaign to control reckless driving speed in Dubai, the government also installed state-of-the-art digital speed cameras, every two kilometers on its major highway’s with heavy, progressive fines imposed on the number of speeding tickets.

To acquire a license in Dubai is a lengthy, expensive and uncertain process. A UK/US/Canadian passport holder can have their licenses converted to a Dubai license, in spite of the UK’s right-hand driving system. Asians have previously found it difficult to pass driving tests and most have to resort to taking a driving ‘course’ that can total to a whopping Dhs 3,000 to 5,000 financial outlay. Money, however, is an unlikely hindrance to most residents in Dubai. Many high-speed addicts, who can afford to pay for this deadly luxury, are said to put aside a monthly allowance for speeding fines. A case in point, an Emirati teenager who is said to have accumulated Dhs 70,000 worth of fines on speeding alone, in just one year.

Fancy cars are as common in Dubai as rickshaws are in Pakistan. There is a growing appetite for the finest, exotic cars companies in the Arab, as well as in the luxury-loving expatriate population — such as Bugatti design custom-made special edition cars. Arrogance is evident by harassment on the road and status stereotyping is practiced by tail-gating, or flashing headlights to bully terrified inferiors out of the way, or overtaking lesser, ordinary cars — in Dubai this could be a brand-new Honda Civic. Most accidents in the UAE are caused by male drivers whose chauvinism on the road often induces road games between drivers.

A general lack of respect, even impatience towards traffic rules, exists in Dubai.
Shockingly, pedestrian deaths are 25% of accident fatalities. The RTA (Road and Transport Authority) has developed specific campaigns such as educational workshops across schools, colleges and organisations to promote driver awareness. Text messages are sent to the driving public to remind them of their social responsibilities. Emirati business man, Khalaf Al Habtoor, expressed his disregard for traffic fines, and categorised them as ‘hidden charges,’ with the long-term aim of discouraging investors from relocating to Dubai. “You drive at 80 km/h and when do you reach work? Tomorrow?” he said.

The writer is freelance journalist.