DUBAI // The minimum age for obtaining a driving licence should be lowered from 18 to 16 but only after a driver has received at least 100 hours of practical training, a senior traffic officer said. The change would help solve the problem of untrained, underage teenagers getting behind the wheel illegally, said Major Gen Mohammad al Zafein, the director of the Dubai Police traffic department.
"To allow young people to drive at the age of 16 is a protection for them," he said. "They would have the appropriate knowledge and training of how to drive safely. "Many teenagers drive their parents' cars behind their backs or borrow their older siblings' cars, making underage driving a problem. "By allowing them to obtain a licence after acquiring the appropriate knowledge, we are saving their lives."
Several driving instructors, consultants and parents immediately opposed the idea, citing a lack of maturity among young drivers. "There is no evidence to suggest the average 16-year-old has the maturity, judgment or level of social responsibility necessary to interact safely on public roads," said Peter Richardson, a general manager at the Emirates Driving Institute. "[We] have grave reservations with any recommendations to reduce the minimum age to 16 years."
Simon Labbet, a regional director for the British Transport Research Laboratory, which is helping the Ministry of Interior establish new licensing regulations, also had reservations. "I believe the potential risks outweigh the benefit," he said. "We know young drivers are a high collision risk. It is [about] their maturity, their ability to deal with underlying factors." "They are still at a school age, still learning things themselves," Mr Labbet said.
Khalifa Mohammed, the Emirati father of a 15-year-old boy, said he would not allow his son to drive at the age of 16. "It is too dangerous. He would look at the whole driving experience as an adventure," Mr Mohammed said. "I believe one needs more experience and maturity. To drive a car is a big responsibility." Gen al Zafein, however, said being young did not necessarily mean being reckless and a danger on the roads. He said parents of 16-year-olds should be allowed to decide whether their children were mature enough to drive.
"Parents are the best to know if their children are mature enough to take on such a responsibility," he said. "If this rule was applicable, I would definitely allow my son to get his licence at 16." The proposal follows efforts by the Ministry of Interior to unify and tighten the licensing system. The Transport Research Laboratory is conducting a study for the ministry and will submit proposals soon.
Currently, drivers in all emirates must be aged at least 18 to obtain a driving licence, but training and testing requirements vary. Gen al Zafein said students should undergo 20 hours of theoretical lessons and 100 hours of practical training before taking a driving test. The Roads and Transport Authority at present requires at least 20 hours of practical lessons. The Emirates Driving Institute requires seven hours of theoretical lessons and says most students need 20 to 30 hours of practical lessons before they can successfully obtain their licence.
Gen al Zafein proposed several restrictions on licences for young drivers, including: The licence would be granted only to Emiratis. "We do not want to impose our rules on [people from] other countries," he said. For the first six months, driving would be prohibited between midnight and 6am. Carrying passengers below the age of 20 who are not family members would be prohibited. If a new driver accumulates 24 black points, their licence would be suspended for two years and they would be required to reapply after the suspension finishes.
The licence would be temporary until the age of 18, with a full licence granted then if the driver has a clean record. Mr Labbet, from the Transport Research Laboratory, said the idea of a lower driving age should be approached with caution. "It is something you shouldn't rush into thinking about," he said. "I can understand the issue with regard to [teenagers] driving without any licensing, but it is not just one of those things you would do without considerable thought and considerable study."
Many countries are considering raising the minimum age at which people can start driving, he pointed out. Gen al Zafein said young drivers were not inherently more dangerous on the road, pointing to a recent Dubai Police report that found young people under 25 caused the fewest fatal accidents in the emirate during the third quarter of this year. People under 25 caused seven fatal accidents; those aged between 25 and 35 caused 15 fatal accidents; and people aged 35 to 50 caused 17 deadly crashes, according to the report.
However, Sharjah Police said last week that more than half the 176 people who had died on the emirate's roads this year were aged 30 or younger, with most of those deaths attributed to reckless driving. Mr Richardson, from the Emirates Driving Institute, said early education for teenagers was a good idea, even if they did not receive their licences until later. "A curriculum of study starting from 16 years of age would help students be better prepared to undertake the responsibility of motoring and its consequences when they reach a more suitable age to begin practical training," he said.
Rashid Hassan, a father of two teenagers from Sharjah, said driving at the age of 16 would distract children from their schoolwork. "[They] would be studying for their secondary school certificate, so to give them the option to start applying for their driving licence will divert their concentration and might affect their school results," he said. Some teenagers, as might be expected, seemed open to the idea.
"Many of my friends take their parents' cars and drive around, so if they were to legalise our driving this will protect their lives," said Ahmed, a 17-year-old from Dubai. "They would have the appropriate training before driving on the roads." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Matthew Chung