Getting your driving licence is a rite of passage that transcends cultures and national borders, and aspiring drivers in the UAE are just as keen to experience the liberation, convenience and opportunities that come with having a driving licence. But is the licensing process in the UAE effective in producing safe drivers and is the training thorough and fair? Two years into the process of streamlining the UAE's driving schools from well over 300 to just five, there seem to be a wide range of issues still needing to be tackled. In a region of more than 200 nationalities, not least of which is the need for good communication between instructor and learner.
"My instructor didn't speak much English, and she used to warble 'petrol, petrol' at me," says Jolanta Chudy, a British expat who learnt to drive here. "It took me about a week to realise she meant 'step on the gas'. Until then, I was convinced the petrol gauge was faulty." A lack of communication - or indeed direction - from the instructor was a bizarre feature of Emirati Tahani Al Beidh's driving lessons. "I used to take an afternoon class and she used to be asleep all the time so I could enjoy my driving the way I wanted," she says with a laugh.
However, this is not always the case, as Ryan Gonsalvez from India proves. "The instructor I had the first time round was pretty cool. He chatted a lot and took me through what to expect while taking the test; almost like having the question paper before an examination." Communication can also be a problem when you fail. As Ryan continues, "I was not told why I failed. I just got one lane change and was asked to pull over". Roy Cruz, a Filipino, was also left wondering after failing: "I asked why. He pointed to the exam sheet; it was in Arabic."
Many of the students interviewed also seem to have had very differing experiences in terms of the level and consistency of tuition. Ruth Bradley from the UK had a good experience with her instructor. "Her name was Claire from the Classic Car School. She is Greek and an ex-UAE policewoman. She was amazing. Her confidence in me from day one made a huge difference." Zubaida Ahmed, an Emirati, says she was also lucky to find an excellent instructor who taught her more than just the basic requirements for the test. "Zeenath Yousef Ishaq was a driving trainer and now she is an assessor at Belhasa Driving Centre - she is an amazing and passionate trainer," says Ahmed.
Driving schools are indeed making huge efforts in tandem with the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to improve the quality and delivery of the driver training services. Says Peter Richardson, general manager of technical and operations at the Emirates Driving Institute (EDI), "We recognise what needs to be done to bring it up to a truly world-class standard that can hold its own in training and instructor techniques. But you're not going to get there in one giant step." He is also aware of the responsibility driving schools have towards their students and to existing drivers to offer them practical, tangible alternatives to the way they might think they should drive.
The RTA has also enlisted the assistance of VicRoads, the transport regulatory body for the Australian state of Victoria, to improve driver training, licensing services and improve the traffic safety of new drivers. For five weeks last year, VicRoads trainers gave Dubai instructors extensive training. Mattar Al Tayer, the executive director of the RTA, says the training involved "appropriate methods of delivering information to trainees, the correct application of driving and traffic rules and educational methods of safe and defensive driving after obtaining the driving licences."
Last year, Al Tayer announced a package of initiatives "being considered for implementation" in 2009. This includes three-year licences for novice drivers issued before becoming permanent licence-holders, night driving courses for new drivers and training so people with special needs can obtain licences. However, at this stage, these initiatives are still under consideration. But without a country-wide, government-endorsed "highway code" used across all driving schools and across all emirates, how can a set of standards physically be introduced in order to regulate the standard of training and examination?
Gonsalvez noted, "At times, the standards set by the instructors and the examiners may not necessarily be the same. Some instructors want you to be hitting the accelerator while examiners may just like to enjoy a lazy drive through Satwa. So you never know whether you're right or not. You're just at their mercy." Learner drivers who have failed multiple times might be forgiven for feeling as if the system for passing tests is arbitrary or, when there is a lack of explanation for multiple failures, confusing at best.
Cruz had been driving for six years in the Phillipines but took three comedy-of-errors attempts to get his UAE licence. On the first attempt, he was subjected to a tirade about George W Bush during his test. "It was like listening to an anti-US radio show," says Roy. On his second test, the RTA testing officer advised Roy to take care when turning on to a main road from a side street. Sound advice, until the officer took matters into his own hands. "When our vehicle was still far from the main road, he lifted the hand brake rather too abruptly and the car behind smashed into us". Roy recalls, "The third guy was just silent, let me drive, keeping instructions minimal. I think he believed I'd already been driving for six years and I passed the exam."
Many claim the pressure to pass the test and the oppressive build-up to the actual event is the real reason for failing. Stories are frequently told of arriving at the centre at 7am and sitting for several hours in a room of 100 or more people waiting for your name to be randomly called, not daring to even visit the bathroom, and even having to return over two or three days before hearing your name announced. Gonsalvez says, "Visit any centre and you can sense and see the fear." Al Bloushi adds, "When I was in the waiting room, there were ladies who were actually going for their 20th try! Some had been training for more than two years. I found that it wasn't because they were bad drivers or had bad instructors. It was because these ladies were petrified of the driving test itself."
Both the lessons and the test, according to several driving school heads, are still lacking because of government restrictions on the extent of training. There is no provision for night-time driving - an essential skill for any driver. There is also no training on highways, such as how to enter and leave, or simple lane discipline and changing lanes at speed. "I'm frustrated on behalf of all driving instructors that we can't prepare people fully for everyday driving," says Richardson. "But I know there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes to persuade the authorities to open up the opportunity there."
At the moment, these experiences are limited to a few sessions on the driving school simulators but these can be no substitute for actual on-the-road tuition, especially in a country where virtually every journey requires you to drive on a minimum three-lane highway. Somewhat humorously, Gonsalvez adds, "Driving in Dubai has made me learn Morse code: flashing headlights and beeps of horns communicate to me how good I'm driving or how much time I have to get out of the way of the monster four-wheel drive sitting on the bum of my car. Driving can be so stressful."
With 1,056 deaths and more than 260,000 accidents on the roads of the UAE in 2007, and thousands more vehicles expected on the roads in the near future, there is most definitely the need for a more stringent and thorough teaching and examination process, as well as the re-education and better policing of existing drivers. While the experiences of the select few new drivers mentioned here are frequently amusing but equally unnerving in both their similarities and their differences, the fact is that every day licences are being issued according to divergent and unregulated criteria, and hatchling drivers are being let loose onto the dangerous and often predatory rivers of traffic, ill-prepared for the journey ahead of them.
But Richardson is hopeful. "We can only achieve an improvement on an otherwise alarming road safety record." With better facilities and an attitudinal element to the driving lectures, learners develop greater responsibility and the ability to assess the risks inherent in city driving. How these abilities are themselves assessed is clear: "I would like to see a longer, more consistently given and meaningful test", Richardson adds, "so each student gets an equal and fair opportunity to demonstrate their ability, and to have the expertise in place to be able to deliver that examination to a consistent high standard."
So, are our driving school guinea pigs confident on UAE roads? "I took to driving on these roads like a duck to water," says Bradley. For Mr Gonsalvez, it is proving a challenge: "It's made me swear a lot." But Cruz's opinion on whether he feels safe on the UAE's roads probably sums up most of our thoughts: "Absolutely not! Seeing how other people drive here makes me wonder how they got their licences." firstname.lastname@example.org