x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Good news on the road from Dubai to Abu Dhabi

There are miles to go before the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai is accident free, but there's progress on the road to safety.

Here's a bit of good news, even if it is wrapped in a familiar tale of destruction and mayhem.

On Tuesday, the morning commute between Dubai and Abu Dhabi took nearly two and half hours, which is nearly an hour longer than usual. Much of the delay was caused by a serious accident on the Sheikh Zayed Road at Dubai Marina.

The driver of a workers' bus apparently stopped in the centre lane to inspect a tyre that had blown out, when a school bus ploughed into the back of him. There were a number of serious injuries, although thankfully not to the schoolchildren, and tailbacks that clogged not just the main road, but also side streets, for much of the early morning. It was bad enough to make the front pages.

After getting clear of that, there was an open road until just past the new Sheikh Zayed Bridge that links Abu Dhabi to the mainland, when four lanes of glowing red tail lights indicated more trouble ahead.

This time the cause was two vast cranes that were lowering lift towers into place for the pedestrian walkways across Salam Street. Actually, the cranes were blameless, but the spectacle was so irresistible to a couple of motorists that they thought it was more interesting to watch them instead of the road ahead.

The rest of us sat for a further 20 minutes in another traffic jam, while the Saeed traffic cops and a couple of tow lorries dragged the wreckage off to the side. Thankfully, this time there were no ambulances.

So where's the good news, you're probably asking? Well, the answer is this: there was a time, not so very long ago, when this sort of carnage was a routine part of the daily commute between the nation's two biggest cities. About a year ago, I counted 16 separate accidents on a single journey. And if you knew you had an important meeting in either town, you left early. Really early.

But something has changed in recent months. Something really quite significant that suggests a driving culture most of us thought was as ingrained as the desert sands can actually be reformed.

As a result, the journey between Abu Dhabi and Dubai is almost a civilised experience. Aggressive tailgating has become much rarer. The hard shoulder is no longer an optional overtaking lane.

Driving in the second lane doesn't mean being buffeted in the slipstream of a Land Cruiser driving at 200 kph or blinded by the high beams in the rear-view mirror. And miracle of miracles, quite a lot of people even indicate when changing lanes.

There is a reason for this, and it has nothing to do with people coming to their senses in a driving environment regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world. Instead, it has everything to do with law enforcement.

At the beginning of the year, Abu Dhabi police announced they were cutting the unofficial speed limit to 140 kph, although still with a cushion of 20 kph above the posted limit. In some areas on the motorway, the limit would be cut still further, to 100 kph. Some weeks later, large signs appeared along the motorway, announcing the changes.

Probably most people didn't really take this seriously. They might have wondered if there was any speed limit at all on the E11, since it had typically resembled the closing lap of an F1 Grand Prix. And then the speeding tickets started to roll in.

There were two cameras in particular that focused a lot of minds. One was - still is - in Shahama leaving Abu Dhabi in a zone that drops from 120 to 100 kph. The second is a new camera on the inbound approach to the Sheikh Zayed Bridge.

Everyone I know has been caught by that one. At one point it must have been bringing in more income than the output of a small Al Gharbia oilfield. The point has been made; you can see the cars slowing as they approach the city.

That's only part of the story, though. The other is down to good policing. There are police cars visible along the entire length of the road these days, and they mean business. I see them every day, making the sort of routine traffic stops that are a familiar part of life in most of the countries we come from. It doesn't matter if you are a streaking white Mercedes or an overloaded Tata lorry; break the law and you run the risk of getting pulled over.

This is clearly a change of strategy and it is particularly evident on the new Salam Street motorway, where the authorities seem determined to enforce responsible driving from the start. A small fleet of police vehicles, including a couple of unmarked cars, seems to be patrolling the road, with the result that Salam Street is probably the most orderly road in the country.

Just what a radical change this is was brought home the other day, while overtaking a patrolling police vehicle - we were both inside the speed limit - just before the giant glass mint that is the Aldar headquarters.

A few seconds later, the vehicle pulled out behind me and there was immediately that once-familiar tension, no matter how blameless the circumstances, while waiting for flashing lights to appear in the rear view mirror. And the same sense of relief when the police car instead pulled right for the next exit.

Yet there is still much to be done. The old problems remain, just much reduced. It is still not acceptable to drive 15cm from someone's rear bumper even within the speed limit.

Children need to wear seat belts. If using a mobile phone is both illegal and dangerous, then texting while holding the phone in front of your nose is positively homicidal. (And yes, I'm talking to you, the lady with the toddler sitting in her lap as she drove with one hand and sent an SMS with the other.)

For nearly two years now, The National has been hammering home the need for better driving with our "Road to Safety" campaign. So it's good to see real progress, since the figures back this up.

Released this month, the latest statistics from the Ministry of the Interior show a drop in the average number of accidents each month since the beginning of the year to 520 in 2011 from 600 in 2010.

That is still a very high rate, as are the 338 deaths recorded in traffic accidents so far this year. The authorities say the biggest cause of fatal accidents is abrupt lane changes, which suggests what the next crackdown might be.

So let's hear it for the boys in red and white (and green and white, since Dubai is equally serious about better driving standards). We haven't reached the end of the road to safety yet, but this is one of those times when it is good to travel hopefully.

James Langton is an editor for The National and estimates in the past year he has spent the equivalent of eight weeks in his car commuting between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, while driving 3.67 times round the world.