x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

'Ahmed died here': what we need to read to slow us down

We need a "big-bang" type of campaign across the GCC to raise the issue of reckless driving.

'Bang, you're dead" was the title of a controversial campaign used by the city of New York more than 20 years ago to openly address the spread of Aids. The public service announcements included a picture of a couple approaching a bed with "Bang, you're dead!" typed in bold under the photograph. That in-your-face style delivered the message. While we may need another 20 years to drop our shyness in addressing Aids, I would like to immediately use the campaign's approach in addressing another cause of death by risky human behaviour: death by driving.

Many years ago I was caught speeding. A police officer made me watch a 30-minute video on road accidents. Hanging on the corridor walls leading to the exit were images of wrecked cars and equally wrecked lives. The images were disturbing and they changed my attitude towards speeding. There was also a gentle attempt many years ago at addressing road accidents through a GCC-wide TV programme aptly called Al Amn was Salamah, or Security and Safety. The music was catchy and the content authoritative, but apparently not shocking enough.

I am not sure if the compulsory viewing I experienced is still practised today as punishment anywhere across the GCC. What I know, however, is that we need a "big-bang" type of campaign across the GCC to raise the issue of reckless driving. While laws may be strict, enforcement often lags behind. According to motoring experts, up to 20 per cent of automobiles in the region have been involved in accidents. In some cities a more vigilant traffic force is in place, while in others the right of way is assumed by the bigger car. Yes, it is not only expatriates who say driving in Jeddah or Kuwait City is treacherous; I lived in the former and visit the latter. I concur. I also drive in Oman and the UAE, and driving has become increasingly stressful, to say the least.

It is said that flying is safer than driving. Surely this is true in this region. Do one in five airplanes crash? Yet, airlines do not compromise on having passengers wear seat belts in all seats. Why should this standard not apply to cars? Then there is actual road design. There are some that seem to be built to invite accidents. These include roads that jut against the direction of traffic so common in the GCC. In my immediate surroundings, there is a breakthrough in road design that baffles drivers as lanes suddenly expand from two to four and then just as suddenly back to two - just to cross a traffic light!

There are a multitude of controls and lessons that our law enforcement authorities can adopt. One of my favourites is the use of a sticker with a speed limit of 80 kph for new drivers. Another is the use of a strict points system. Drivers of vehicles for public transport must be tested regularly, especially drivers of school buses. All of these, however, will not prevent the fact that driving fast does provide an adrenalin rush. If you sit behind the wheel of a 5-Series or a red Boxter your driving and even your personality is bound to change. To rein in the animal in you, maybe you need an occasional sobering warning, like one on the side of the road that says "Ahmed died here". It would give you something to think about as you press your foot on the accelerator.

I was recently stopped for speeding - what a hypocrite, right? Well, not exactly. I was visiting someone inside an oil company's facility, and was apparently doing 60 in a 40 kph zone. Although I protested and questioned the company guard's authority, I could not help admire the man's sense of duty. I was above the limit, and his shrill whistle was enough to stop me. I can see his logic now; the last thing I want my car to bang into is an oil tank.

Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman