When taking control of a car in a dangerous road environment such as that of the UAE, it's good to learn a thing or two about defensive driving.
On the defence
In the UAE, there are 28 car crashes a day, one fatality every eight hours (1,071 deaths in 2008) and 10 injuries every seven hours (12,150 injuries in 2008). The sight of a 4x4 speeding down the outside lane on the E11 flashing its lights can strike fear in the heart of the most experienced of drivers. But, as I discovered when I went out on the roads with an instructor, rather than feeling victimised by this bullying tactic, a defensive driving course can give you the confidence to take it in your stride.
Within days of arriving in Abu Dhabi from The Netherlands, Louise Parkinson witnessed a pedestrian fatality. Consequently, she was reluctant to drive in the city. "It scared me witless. I was too scared to go on Airport Road - it absolutely terrified me." Before the accident, she had been a confident driver and had driven in both London and The Netherlands. With two children attending school, Parkinson knew she had to get back behind the wheel, so when her husband's employer, Shell, offered to send her on a defensive driving course, she leapt at the chance. As Khulood Qayed, the human resources business partner for Shell Abu Dhabi explains: "We want people to come to work safely and go back to their families safely as well."
Alan McGuinness, the managing director of Matrix International Safety, has been teaching defensive driving and helping companies formulate their road-safety policies for over 13 years. Based mainly in Dubai, he explains that what he does is rooted in the psychology of driving. He aims to stop people going on autopilot the moment they step into a car. "I try to empower people. Make them feel confident to get out there."
The course begins with four hours in a classroom, talking about the technical side of driving, human performance levels and then delving into a bit of basic psychology before watching some graphic videos of accidents. "Problems are only an issue because you don't understand them. We watch videos of accidents and talk through why things happen," McGuinness explains. He has some sympathy with complaints about the standard of driving often displayed on the roads, but is quick to point out that playing the victim is not the solution. "Stop blaming everyone else," he says. "You have to do something about the problem."
After the classroom session, McGuinness has his students drive him around in their own cars. He explains that it is important to "enter your personal environment" and see how you drive normally. "Everything you do in a car is a learnt behavioural pattern that you have taught yourself." This means bad habits can be formed and some basic safety procedures forgotten. Before I turned on the ignition, McGuinness examined my driving position. The driver should be sitting so that their eye level is halfway between the top of the steering wheel and the top of the windscreen. There should be a slight bend in both arms and legs. When holding the wheel in the "10 to two" position, you should be able to rotate the wheel 180 degrees without crossing your hands. The easy way to calculate this is to extend your arm to the top of the steering wheel and position the seat so that your wrist is on the top and centre of the wheel. He criticised my window tinting and Salik tag for coming too low down the windscreen, explaining that it limited my vision. "Ninety per cent of your sensory input is via your visual cortex when you are driving. If the quality of the information you receive is weak, you perform poorly."
McGuinness then made sure I was aware of the extent of the blind spot in my car. He walked some distance behind the car at an angle to the driver's side, until he was out of sight and then walked towards me. I was surprised how close he was before I saw him. "Now imagine I was a Land Cruiser speeding along at 120 kph and you hadn't seen me," he said, explaining that before manoeuvring the car I should look over my shoulders through the rear passenger windows to see past my blind spot. "Looking over the shoulder will tell you speed and distance. The mirror says 'maybe'. What you are looking for is 'yes' or 'no'. Your eyes will tell you 'yes' or 'no'."
This driving move is one I have now made part of the normal routine. It was incredibly difficult to learn. Having driven, on and off, for more than 15 years, my driving behaviours are ingrained and at first, turning my whole upper body to look properly at the road over my shoulder felt strange and even dangerous, because my eyes were not looking in front for those few seconds. Now, I barely even think about it.
Seat belt fastened and having ensured that my passengers, too, had done up their seat belts, I was allowed to set off. We hadn't gone very far when McGuinness spotted my Bluetooth earpiece on the dashboard. Mobile use while driving is something he is passionately against. His rule is simple: "Engine on - phone off." He dismisses the idea of hands-free sets being acceptable. "What's driving the vehicle? Your hands or your brain? Until they invent a brain-free phone, don't do it."
Equally as important as safety aspects is anticipating what may happen outside the car. As Parkinson explains, driving with McGuinness around Abu Dhabi helped her to understand her new driving environment. "He took us along the Corniche and pointed out hazards. He could anticipate behaviours. It was very helpful." Parkinson also found that familiarising herself with the road structure in Abu Dhabi - how the grid system and the sequencing of lights at different junctions worked - enabled her to understand why some cars would come in on one lane and need to peel across several lanes before they reached the lights.
The next stage in the course is all about confidence. Taking control and feeling empowered. As we drive along Sheikh Zayed Road, a driver in a Toyota pick-up is moving very slowly in front of me, pinning me in fast-moving traffic. McGuinness suggests I overtake him. "Ease away. Don't let that Toyota drive this car. You are driving this car. You are in charge. He is controlling this lane, so rather than sit behind him and letting that develop, set your own agenda. Don't be dictated to by others."
Parkinson says the course really helped her. "I'd lost all confidence on the roads. It was complete madness. I'd never been a timid driver. Alan gave me some of that confidence back. He told me: 'You can do it; you can drive'." Parkinson says that now, far from being scared on the roads and playing the victim: "I can take control of the situation. I have the ability to anticipate and understand road behaviours and have confidence. I know I can go out and drive."
"Most people, when they drive in a place like Dubai, just go on autopilot and respond physically to what they see around them, instead of leading the game," explains McGuinness. "You should be driving from A to B in the manner you want to drive, not the way other people are making you drive. Yes, you've got to have your wits about you - but you also have to have a plan and go with it." In a car-based society such as the UAE, with high rates of fatalities per capita, we all need to "up our game" and become more aware on the roads. It is easy as you rush to catch the lights because you are late for a meeting, to forget that you are in charge of two tonnes of powerful machinery. The course showed me how to shake off my victim mentality and drive, not aggressively, but safely and confidently. As McGuinness says before we part: "Get involved. It's worth it."