ABU DHABI // A dramatic fall in traffic accidents this week has been directly linked to the three-day disruption in BlackBerry services.
In Dubai, traffic accidents fell 20 per cent from average rates on the days BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents this week fell 40 per cent and there were no fatal accidents.
On average there is a traffic accident every three minutes in Dubai, while in Abu Dhabi there is a fatal accident every two days.
Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the chief of Dubai Police, and Brig Gen Hussein Al Harethi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Police traffic department, linked the drop in accidents to the disruption of BlackBerry services between Tuesday and Thursday.
Email, Messenger and internet functions were unavailable to users in the Middle East, Africa and Europe after a crucial link in the BlackBerry network failed.
Gen Tamim said police found "a significant drop in accidents by young drivers and men on those three days". He said young people were the largest user group of the Messenger service.
"The accidents that occur from the use of these devices range between minor and moderate ones, but at times they are deadly," Gen Tamim said.
Brig Gen Al Harethi said: "Accidents were reduced by 40 per cent and the fact that BlackBerry services were down definitely contributed to that."
"Absolutely nothing has happened in the past week in terms of killings on the road and we're really glad about that," Brig Gen Al Harethi said. "People are slowly starting to realise the dangers of using their phone while driving. The roads became much safer when BlackBerry stopped working."
The precise statistics for traffic accidents in the two emirates this week were not revealed to The National.
The dangers of using mobile phones while driving was tragically highlighted by the death of the UAE international footballer Theyab Amana. He crashed his car two weeks ago into the rear of a road-painting lorry near Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, reportedly while using a BlackBerry. His mourning father urged motorists not to use phones while driving.
"That accident must have really made people think twice before using their BlackBerry while driving," Brig Gen Al Harethi said.
Ammar Al Alwan, an Iraqi resident in the emirate, said he believed the Abu Dhabi Police figures were accurate.
"I did use my BlackBerry while driving," said Mr Al Alwan, 25. "But after seeing the effects of doing so and the accidents and lives that have been lost I stopped. I have already quit using my BlackBerry while driving. Texting can wait."
Maha Khoubieh, a Syrian resident in Abu Dhabi, said she tended to look at the twinkling red light of her BlackBerry when on the road.
"Sometimes it's just really hard not to," said Ms Khoubieh, 27.
The drop in accidents and fatalities surprised her.
"It's quite scary to see how much a phone can affect our lives," she said. "I definitely think that from now on, my BlackBerry will stick to the inside pocket of my handbag and we should all be able to do our part to improve the safety of our roads."
Two weeks ago, Abu Dhabi Police announced a campaign against motorists who use their phones while at the wheel.
Gen Tamim likewise warned that Dubai Police will soon be using electronic evidence against drivers who cause accidents while using their smart devices.
"We have the capability to know who sent what when, and if an accident occurs while someone was messaging we will prove it and present the electronic evidence to the Public Prosecutor, and charge the driver with the costs of retrieving that evidence," he said.
More than 36,500 fines have been handed out in the emirate so far this year to drivers using their phones. The fine for anyone caught driving and talking on the phone without a headset is Dh200 and four black points on their licence.
Those who drive in a way that poses danger to the public are fined Dh1,000 and issued with 12 black points. Police also confiscate their car for 30 days.
Traffic safety experts echoed the calls for drivers to be more vigilant and not use phones while driving.
"Distracted driving is a cause for concerns on the streets and a cause for accidents," said John Hughes, the regional manager of traffic safety consultancy ARRB Group.
"The use of cellphones while driving is a major distraction and we call on all drivers to either use hands-free sets or avoid them on the roads, to raise the safety standards and avoid death and injury."