ABU DHABI // Emirati children in Shahama are risking their lives in mad dashes across the nation's busiest motorway to get to school. Groups of local boys are sprinting across eight lanes of traffic on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai E11, crossing in areas without a bridge or an underpass to keep them safe from speeding vehicles. Mahesh Nagaraj, 38, an Indian commuter from Dubai, nearly struck one of the boys last week as the youth ran through traffic early one morning.
Shaken from the experience, Mr Nagaraj said he was just metres "from having blood on my hands". Although the UAE does not keep statistics on motorway accidents and deaths, at least one child has been struck and killed on the section of road in recent months. The young pupil attended the Saad bin Muaz School, on the west side of the road. "There was a highway accident with a young boy with his cousin," said Fatima al Junibi, the secretary for the Shahama Secondary School, next to Saad bin Muaz.
It could be the most perilous stretch of road in the capital for teenagers, she added. "There are worse roads, but I think this is maybe the most dangerous road for children because there's a highway and schools on both sides." In a statement yesterday, Abu Dhabi Municipality said plans have been made to address the problem by building a pedestrian bridge, part of a larger project of crossing points throughout the emirate. Without giving a timetable, the municipality said "action will be taken very soon", adding that the stretch of E11 had long been a concern.
Crossing the street in a taxi is not an alternative, said Mohammed Tawfik, a security guard at Saad bin Muaz, because it is "impossible" to hail one around the suburbs of Shahama and Bahia. Mohammed Ali, 15, a pupil at Alajbaan Boys School on the east side of E11, said he regularly sees boys using a hole in the fence to reach the Saad bin Muaz School on the west side. "Before maybe two years, one student is dead," he said as he watched cars race past at speeds exceeding 140 kph.
By not taking a school bus or waiting for a ride from a parent, boys going home or to school save about 20 minutes of travel time by dashing across the motorway. Then there is the thrill of the potentially deadly crossing. Some of the boys dare each other to race to opposite sides "as a kind of game", said Mahfuzul Mannan, a bank employee with an office facing the motorway. "They're in a playing mode," he said. "It's like a challenge when they're in groups."
Four teenagers clutching textbooks scampered from the west side to the east, ducking through a hole in a fence to get to the Alajbaan school. "It happens every day," said Mr Nagaraj, 38, the commuter who almost struck a student. "We only noticed him because the others - a bunch of his friends - were waiting and cheering him from the other side, telling him to 'Go! Go!'. He was running fast, but he was wearing a dishdash and could easily trip on it."
Norm Labbe, the managing director of the Emirates Institute for Health and Safety, was aware of the area and called on the authorities to address it. "There are other places around Mafraq and Baniyas where the schools are on one side of a motorway and the residents are on the other side," he said. "It's typical of the human race: if there's an opportunity to take a short cut, we will." firstname.lastname@example.org