ABU DHABI // About a month ago, thick fog descended on a length of the highway between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, severely reducing visibility for motorists. The scene seemed to be set for a repeat of the event that struck a year ago today, when more than 200 cars crashed in heavy fog during morning rush-hour on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway near Ghantoot, killing four, injuring 350 others and leaving 20 cars blazing in the wreckage on what became known as Fog Tuesday.
This time, however, police say the response of drivers was markedly different. According to Maj Ahmed al Neyadi, a spokesman for Abu Dhabi Police traffic and patrols department, drivers reduced their speed and many pulled over to the side of the road until the fog had cleared. It was, he said, a hopeful sign that drivers were heeding police advice and becoming more aware of how to behave in fog. "From what we have seen, people have started committing to the rules," Maj al Neyadi said yesterday. "People are now pulling over instead of putting on the hazard lights."
Everyone was playing a part in reducing recklessness on the roads: "Public and private companies now excuse their employees if they are late." Motorists interviewed not far from the scene of last year's multi-car crash agreed that travelling on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai stretch of the E11 motorway was safer than it was a year ago, and felt that more drivers were abiding by the speed limit. Abu Dhabi Police have attributed the introduction just over a year ago of the "black points" system which gives points to drivers in addition to fines for some motoring offences, with helping to achieve an overall decrease in deaths and injuries. By January this year the number of dead and injured on the roads of Abu Dhabi had dropped year-on-year by 15 per cent.
Mohammed Ali Omar, a UAE Pro League footballer with Al Dhafra football club, said he had noticed a greater police presence on the Abu Dhabi stretch of the highway during foggy conditions. "People know that if they speed, or they don't speed, they are going to reach [their destination] anyway," he said. "I am driving in fog but it is more comfortable now. The police are there and making the cars go normal speed, they are moving with them."
But despite some improved driving, fog is still claiming lives. In December, two people were killed and several others injured in five separate accidents during morning fog. Mohammed al Naqbi, 22, said he had passed an accident scene on Monday during early-morning fog on Emirates Road in Dubai. It is still not uncommon to see drivers exceeding the speed limit during foggy conditions, with their hazard lights flashing and their lights on full beam, which only further reduces visibility by reflecting the light off the fog.
"The speed is one thing, but the main thing is the tendency they have to put the hazard lights on," said Bernard Hanssens, 35, a Belgian living in Jebel Ali who drives between Dubai and Abu Dhabi a couple of times a week. "It is pretty confusing because then you don't know if they are going to go left, right or straight." Officials say that last year's incident added urgency to a series of planned highway initiatives, including a roadside early-warning system. By next winter, they say, motorists will start to see portable message signs on the side of highways and some major routes on the island. Eventually, about 40 of the devices will be installed in a joint initiative between Abu Dhabi Police and the Department of Transport. Operators in a central control room will be able to alter the messages on the signs to warn drivers of fog, sandstorms and other hazards ahead, including collisions. When weather reports warn of fog or other bad driving conditions, the Department of Transport will be responsible for locating the signs at the most suitable sites.
"It should help improve road safety and also road congestion," said Major Hussain al Harthei, head of traffic engineering and road safety for the traffic and patrols department. They could also be deployed to suggest alternative routes to drivers during periods of congestion. The first 20 signs were expected to arrive in the next four months, according to a source at the Department of Transport and, when they start to operate, students from UAE University in Al Ain will conduct research to test their effectiveness.
However, officials say the portable message signs are a short-term solution and the first step towards the introduction of an "Intelligent Transport System" for Abu Dhabi, which would incorporate permanent variable-message signs. The implementation of one of these systems would not happen for about five years, but the Department of Transport and police are looking forward to this advanced system. According to a source at the Department of Transport, this sophisticated system would monitor weather systems through a series of sensors installed alongside roads and capable of detecting in real-time sudden fog or other changes in driving conditions. The information would be relayed via weather stations to a central operations room, where staff could post information on a network of roadside signs. In fog, for instance, a new speed limit would be imposed several kilometres further down the road, giving drivers a chance to slow to a safe - and legally binding - speed; speed cameras, linked into the system, would be adjusted automatically to catch any motorists who flout the new limit. In the meantime, say police, the onus is on drivers to use common sense and abide by the rules of the road.
"We are trying to guide common sense on the road," said Maj al Harthei. "Whatever we do, this does not reduce the need for drivers to exercise common sense, abide by traffic regulations and observe the speed limits. They are for their safety and not just to make the route longer for them." Shaher Ahmed, 33, who travels occasionally between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, said he thought the introduction of the portable signs would definitely help motorists in fog but drivers could choose not to drive; the pharmaceutical marketer said he did not when the weather was bad and did not allow his staff to either: "If the meeting is at nine o'clock, I will delay to 11."
Police in Abu Dhabi recently placed 48 more speed cameras in areas where road safety was a concern, said Maj al Harthei, and were in the process of installing more. The government is also creating a Strategic Road Safety Plan for the emirate that will co-ordinate action between road engineering, driver education, enforcement and emergency services. In the past year, the authorities have floated other ideas for dealing with fog, including later starts for schools and early starts for workers during the fog season.
"Many agencies are doing things for safety," said the spokesman for the transport department. "However, in order to make this very effective it has to be integrated and co-ordinated. That is what the Department of Transport is doing." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Haneen Dajani