There were mixed opinions after two teenage boys were killed in a car crash in Ras Al Khaimah in 2009. Some family members said that letting unlicensed teenagers behind the wheel was a necessity because adults were busy at work.
Other members of the community of Al Ghai said unequivocally that underage driving was a serious public hazard. "We have to stop this," said Rowaya Salem, a mother of three. "The parents here don't like that they are driving." In that accident, the brothers, 15 and 16, were near their home when their vehicle was hit head on by a 4x4, which was also driven by a 16-year-old.
The problem may have been identified, but there has been little to curb dangerous behaviour since then. As The National reported yesterday, 341 cases of underage driving were reported in the first six months of this year - in Al Ain alone. Police say that Al Ain has the worst rate of violations, but it is certainly not alone in the Emirates in having a dangerous incidence of unlicensed drivers.
"This is intolerable," said Col Hamad Al Baloushi, the head of traffic police for Abu Dhabi outside of the capital. "Giving the keys to 15 or 16-year-olds and putting them in a position where they could hurt themselves and others is absolutely intolerable."
The recognition that underage driving is a public safety issue has to be followed by enforcement. Far too often, penalties are left to the discretion of authorities, who can excuse offenders with a verbal warning or a slap-on-the-wrist fine. Small wonder that youngsters think that they are entitled to drive.
Parents, too, have to be convinced that they cannot give the car keys to their unlicensed children, no matter the convenience of the moment. As we have seen in other cases, increased enforcement can have sweeping results. Sterner laws - made clear to the public - should include delaying offenders' eligibility for a licence, significant financial penalties and holding parents equally responsible if their children are a danger on the roads.
This is a conflict between entrenched habits, especially outside of the city centres, and modern-day safety considerations. It may have been common practice for children to drive in the past - but in light of the many tragedies on UAE roads, that has to change.
The brothers' deaths in Ras Al Khaimah emphasised a pattern. Last month, two girls, aged 12 and 13, were killed when the car driven by their elder sister, 16, crashed into a concrete barrier at high speed. How can parents ignore this litany of deaths?