ABU DHABI // As a champion rally driver, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi knows all about the thrill of speed. Driving fast is like a drug, he says. But not even professionals are immune to danger - and it was speed that nearly cost Sheikh Khalid his life.
The accident happened during a race in Dubai in 2003. At the time, he thought himself invincible, in total control. "I had nothing else but winning on my mind, at any cost, and so I sped faster and didn't notice a sand hump until too late," says the driver. Gesturing with his hands, he shows how his car nose-dived, flipped and rolled after hitting the bump. And he remembers how much agony he was in as he was flown to a hospital by helicopter.
"You don't know what a serious accident feels like until you have been in one yourself," says Sheikh Khalid, 35, the country's sports ambassador, who has taken part in 75 rallies since 2002 and is the first Arab driver to score two points in the World Rally Championship. The accident left him with a cracked vertebra, from which it took six weeks to recover, but it gave him a new perspective on life.
He went back to rallying and in 2004 won the Middle East Rally Championship. But his driving technique had changed, and so had his philosophy. "Patience and safety get you further in life, and sometimes slowing down at the right time actually gets you to your destination faster," he says. "I am just more aware of my surroundings and don't take unnecessary risks." It is a philosophy of driving that he believes applies everywhere, especially on public roads, which is why he has taken on another ambassadorial role - for road safety.
Now, as the face of the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi's "Drive Safe, Save Lives" campaign - which is being run in conjunction with the police and other safety agencies - Sheikh Khalid can be seen on posters and in TV broadcasts warning motorists against dangerous driving, speeding and not wearing seat belts. He hopes his appearance in the campaign can strike a chord with drivers who will recognise him as someone who understands their need for speed.
"I love cars and I love to drive fast like most people, but I keep that passion restricted to tracks and cars designed for it," he says. "The accident figures here are extremely high and, sadly, most of these accidents could have been avoided with a bit more care." Last year 430 people were killed on Abu Dhabi's roads, giving the emirate one of the worst rates of traffic deaths in the world. "I think part of the problem is that too many people here get fast cars at a young age and feel invincible on the road as they believe the car they are driving is powerful," Sheikh Khalid says.
"When people get used to speeding, and to that adrenaline rush that comes with it, it is difficult for them to see the danger of it and what might happen to them. Speed is addictive like a drug, and so I understand why it is a difficult habit to break." Sheikh Khalid witnessed an accident just this week in the lane next to him, when a 4x4 approached a red light too fast and smashed into a taxi that had stopped.
"What is the hurry?" he says. "That was an almost laughable accident as it was so avoidable. Why was the 4x4 driving at a crazy highway speed on a regular public road with traffic lights?" For those people who simply must drive fast, Sheikh Khalid believes the new Formula One circuit on Yas Island might provide an outlet for them to release their "speed demons" on the track, rather than on public roads.
"Packages and programmes could be arranged to allow people to drive around on the track with special cars, and release that speed in the right place," he said. "Hopefully, that will help reduce accidents." Today, Sheikh Khalid likes to stay within the speed limit when he is on the public road, even if it frustrates aggressive drivers sharing the road with him. "I truly enjoy driving my Lexus quietly without disturbance and stress from the moving traffic," he says.
"I don't allow any of the other drivers to bother me." email@example.com