ABU DHABI // The young driver knew he should be wearing a seat belt for safety, but he chose not to. So the professor who spotted him asked the student to explain why. "He said: 'My colleagues and friends would ridicule me'. Another student told me that if he could find a transparent seat belt, he would use it." Dr Taha Amir, a professor of psychology at UAE University, is halfway through a study on dangerous driving, but has already recorded some worrying trends. Young people are risking their lives for fear of being ridiculed by their friends.
Peer pressure also influences young drivers, nearly always male, into adopting dangerous habits, such as speeding, making reckless manoeuvres, jumping red lights and tailgating, according to Dr Amir. He found that although most youths knew that wearing a seat belt could save their lives in an accident, they chose not to for fear of ridicule. Yet they appeared to be aware of the need for safety. "Those who abide by safety rules are ridiculed - called cowards, considered unskilled drivers scared of accidents or afraid of the police, are not well connected or are not of a social status that puts them above the law," Dr Amir said.
His study has found that accidents are nearly always the result of human influences, and structural and engineering factors play an extremely minor role. The study - The Role of Human Factors in Traffic Accidents in UAE: the Effect of Value Systems, Beliefs and Peers' Pressure on Driving Style - is being supported by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, known for road safety activities such as the Salama Road Safety Public Awareness initiative.
The Ministry of Interior, a partner in the campaign, intends to use the research to make policies aimed at reducing accidents, and may look to use role models from sport and the arts to get its message across. The attitudes relayed in the classes may explain findings by Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) that only 11 per cent of Emiratis and 44 per cent of expatriates living in the capital wore seat belts. In the same study, HAAD said wearing a seat belt would help reduce fatalities in road accidents by up to 60 per cent.
Dr Amir found that young drivers were keen to demonstrate driving styles that made them look good in front of friends, irrespective of the consequences. Nizar Khouri, a 26-year-old Jordanian who moved to Abu Dhabi a year ago, said his driving style changed once he made new friends.
When he was a teenager, he used to drive with excessive speed "not only because of the adrenaline rush, but also because I had friends who liked speeding". He said: "I have stopped speeding now probably because none of my current friends like speeding. "Some people just like speeding, by nature or by culture, and some like the challenge - especially when they have fancy sports cars." Economics also influenced driving standards. "Those who do not mind paying fines prefer to speed, but many would not because they are afraid of fines," he said. Women, of different nationalities and age groups, were usually more cautious drivers because they gave in to the view that they were less able drivers, even though they may be unaware of it, Dr Amir argued.
"In essence, they drive cautiously," said Dr Amir. "Their driving style is generally very conservative and, I dare say, very wise." Dr Amir said social organisations, such as football clubs, could play a significant role in changing attitudes among the young towards road safety. "Popular football players and singers - icons - should persistently speak out against these [dangerous] practices and be seen abiding by every traffic regulation and show they are proud of it," he said.
He also called for a zero-tolerance approach by police. The Ministry of Education, he said, could introduce a road safety programme targeting teenagers. "Teachers must set good examples, otherwise it would not work. Is this realistic? I don't know," said Dr Amir. Mosques and schools, as well as the media, should demonstrate that the values promoting bad driving were both "foolish and dangerous" and went against all human values, including religious ones, he said.
"The irrationality of the actions that lead to disaster should vigorously be pointed out. It should be an ongoing and not a seasonal campaign." There have been several high-profile awareness campaigns to ensure children are protected inside vehicles. They include a current Salama advertising campaign and the National Transport Authority's "Safe Kids Buckle Up" message, which was launched last year.
Between 2000 and 2006, 460 children under 14, who were not wearing seat belts, died in road accidents in the UAE. Two thirds of them were under four. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org