x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

We interrupt this column for a plea to stop road carnage

According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1,056 people were killed on the UAE's roads in 2007.

The topic of today's column is vehicular manslaughter, unfortunately an all too common phenomenon here in the UAE. As has been well reported in this newspaper, the nation has an alarmingly, unacceptably high traffic fatality rate. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1,056 people were killed on the UAE's roads in 2007, giving it a death rate of 37.1 for every 100,000 people. That makes this nation's roads only slightly less deadly than those in war-torn Iraq or Afghanistan. The global average is only 18.8.

Traffic safety may seem slightly off the track for a column generally confined to economic issues. There are other surveys worth pointing out, too, such as the rapid rise in Mercer's annual cost of living rankings by Abu Dhabi (from 65th most expensive city to 26th) and Dubai (from 52nd to 20th). There's also the UAE's somewhat dismal showing in the World Economic Forum's new rankings of openness to trade: the UAE came in 18th in that tally, well behind the kind of global trade centres it hopes to compete with, such as Hong Kong (second) and Singapore (first).

But having roads that resemble scenes from Mad Max poses an economic problem that doesn't need explaining. Tragedies like the death of three young girls while crossing a busy Abu Dhabi street last week, or the near-bisection of a foreign tourist on Abu Dhabi's scenic Corniche by a sports car back in March show the urgent need for something to be done to reverse the carnage. Thus, this columnist finds himself in the rare position of jumping on what has become an editorial bandwagon and salutes this newspaper's campaign to highlight the problem, and hopefully reduce road deaths.

What is perhaps most embarrassing about this problem is that it is one more common to poorer nations. According to the WHO, more than 1.2 million people die every year on the world’s roads, a number that is only rising as economic development puts car ownership within reach of more and more people. Thus, the roads have become the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29, making cars a bigger killer of the world's young people than AIDS.

Poor nations - whether because of less-experienced drivers, lower quality cars or less well-maintained roads - have higher fatality rates. The WHO calculated that low-income countries, those with an average annual per capita income of US$935 (Dh3,434) or less, have an average fatality rate of 21.5, which is still lower than the rate here in the UAE, where average incomes top $41,000 a year. Despite rising affluence, better roads and better cars, the UAE's traffic fatality rate is rising, not falling. That the UAE's roads are dangerous is, of course, no surprise to anyone who has driven on them. The prevailing style of driving here might best be described as kill or be killed.

City speed limits are so widely ignored that observing them results in open harassment by other drivers. Zebra crossings are apparently invisible, despite rules requiring drivers to yield to pedestrians trying to use them. Yielding in general is anathema on the UAE's roads. So is using indicators, which other motorists are quick to exploit as a sign of weakness. The situation is only more frightening on Sheikh Zayed Road, where anyone foolhardy enough to impede the progress of speeding drivers is punished with flashing headlights.

The WHO offers a couple of pieces of advice for the UAE: lower urban speed limits to 50kph, for starters. And require all passengers to wear seat belts, a potentially life-saving device that the WHO estimates is worn by only about three of every five passengers in the UAE. Enforcing existing rules might be a more practical starting point. The Abu Dhabi Government's plan reportedly includes reshaping the urban landscape to encourage slower, safer driving. According to a report in yesterday's The National, city planners are studying techniques such as breaking up the capital's long city blocks to give motorists less room to accelerate, or eliminating the dedicated right-turn lanes that drivers use to bypass traffic lights without stopping for crossing pedestrians.

These are great strides, but they ignore the real culprit. At the root of this problem is a more pernicious social phenomenon: the elevation of the car, or more specifically the car owner, to an exalted station in developing countries. This attitude isn't unique to the UAE. Go anywhere where there's new money and you’ll find that the measure of the man is what kind of car he drives. That's true of even wealthy countries to some extent, but in developing nations it seems to translate into something more profound: the right of way.

Small cars must give way to eight-cylinder SUVs. Sweating pedestrians must give way to air-conditioned Porsches. The more expensive the car, the more self-important the driver. Pedestrians? If they want the right of way, they should be in cars. Consultants brought to the UAE to investigate why the country has such a high fatality rate found that it wasn't the condition of its roads, which were top-notch, or its traffic rules, which were in line with those elsewhere. Rather, it was the attitude of its drivers.

Which drivers? The statistics, again, tell the story. Of the 1,056 traffic fatalities the WHO registered in the UAE in 2007, 87 per cent of those were males, of whom 41 per cent were driving 4x4 vehicles. But it would be wrong to lay the UAE's traffic deaths at the feet of young men in SUVs. Reckless driving starts with inconsiderate driving. Correcting this will require more than simply taking fines from offenders, but threatening to take their time and freedom. Paying speeding fines online is a pretty piece of government, but it does not discourage speeding in the same heart-in-mouth way as being stopped by the flashing sirens of a police cruiser does.

This column has already argued that there are too many cars and that car ownership should be made more costly and public transport more convenient. An even more effective deterrent might be to force errant drivers to spend a sweltering summer navigating the UAE as a pedestrian. warnold@thenational.ae