The first time I attempted to cross a street at an undesignated crossing in California the drivers passing by and other pedestrians looked at me like I had lost it.
Crossing a similar four-lane street between intersections in the UAE would barely cause a bat of an eyelid, let alone the stares I received in the US.
The "jay" in "jaywalk" refers to an inexperienced person, in this case unfamiliar with the ways of the city. Although Abu Dhabi and Dubai had provided me with ample city life experience, the years spent in them had not discouraged me from jaywalking as much as San Diego did in that one encounter.
I soon realised that people were not nearly so blasé about jaywalking in the streets of San Diego as on the roads of the Emirates. Not only did the heavy fines and their enforcement promote adherence to the law, but I also noticed jaywalking was no longer an acceptable social norm in the US.
After a prolonged absence, I returned to the UAE to find infrastructure and roads had developed significantly. With road conditions better than those almost anywhere else, the speeds in the UAE inevitably went up. What used to be an almost two-hour drive between Abu Dhabi and Dubai when I left had been cut to less than an hour's journey.
Due to these developments, jaywalking has become even more of a pressing issue in the nation.
Last year more than 150 people were killed in more than 950 pedestrian-vehicle incidents throughout the UAE, accounting for almost a third of all road deaths. Pedestrian crashes also made up nearly a fifth of traffic accidents in the country. The Emirate of Dubai alone recorded more than 45,000 pedestrian violations in 2012, up from 38,000 in 2011.
Authorities have taken concrete measures in reducing these numbers.
The number of pedestrian bridges has increased in the past few years to discourage illegal crossings, with both Abu Dhabi and Dubai planning 30 more in the near future. A bigger fine of Dh200 for jaywalking is now more widely enforced, with violators having to face courts.
With the Ministry of Interior announcing pedestrian safety as a priority in 2013, countrywide police campaigns to educate the public on the laws, penalties and dangers of jaywalking have been initiated.
Many blame drivers' dangerous habits as well as their disregard for pedestrians for the lion's share of pedestrian accidents and fatalities.
Although driving and urban-planning considerations for pedestrians are essential in reducing pedestrian-related traffic accidents, they should not shift focus away from changing people's behaviour.
Only time will tell if the authorities' measures and focus on pedestrian safety will put a dent in the number of pedestrian deaths. In the meantime, the fight to change attitudes toward jaywalking must be sustained and furthered, hopefully eradicating the temptation to save some time by playing a deadly game of car dodging.
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter at The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US
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