x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Speed isn't the only danger on the roads. Stay awake!

Everybody talks about speeding, but there is also a a more insidious, and more serious, problem on the roads.

Road accidents are an obvious problem in the UAE.

With statistics like 32 deaths per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in the world, it is clear that the problem must be addressed.

But the only factor that seems to leap to mind, whenever the issue is discussed, is speeding. That is a problem, but is eliminating speeding the only solution?

In June, Dubai announced plans to install 176 new speed cameras in the next 18 months. Less than a year ago, Abu Dhabi announced a similar initiative to install 500 cameras. Both of these endeavours are intended to help achieve the goal of zero traffic deaths per 100,000 population by 2020.

But while speeding is a serious issue in the UAE, it is not the only problem that should draw our attention and concern.

In 2009, Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority released a statistical breakdown of accident causes. The results were striking: while "speeding" was blamed for 28 deaths, "sudden changes of lane" was close behind, blamed for 27 deaths.

But both those figures are small compared to the 64 deaths caused by "lack of judgment".

What exactly qualifies as a lack of judgment is hard to say, but according to these numbers, one thing is clear: this problem should not be ignored.

An unwritten norm in the UAE is late-night gatherings. I grew up watching my father and his friends come over for talks that would last until sunrise. At college, I'd do the same, with my friends in Dubai or at school. It is safe to assume that the same practice is common in many more households, too. But late nights cause sleepiness; could that be a factor in the "lack of judgment"?

In March, Reuters reported on a French study that claims sleepiness may be as dangerous a factor as drunk driving on the roads in that country. The study found that both intoxicated and sleepy drivers are at least twice as likely to cause accidents as are well-rested and sober ones.

What makes this study important is that while intoxicated drivers can be caught, the same cannot be said for their sleepy counterparts.

Christopher Drake, a sleep researcher at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, put it this way: "It's very difficult. There's no Breathalyzer for sleepiness."

The Discovery Channel's well-known show Mythbusters investigated this matter in 2010, and found even more surprising results:

Two hosts conducted a test in which they would drive in an obstacle course that tests reflexes, concentration and awareness behind the wheel.

They each did the test twice: once with a certain amount of alcohol in their systems, and once with no alcohol but having gone 24 hours without sleep.

The results: both made three times as many mistakes with no sleep as when intoxicated.

I sat with a group of third-year students from my college to discuss how serious sleepiness is while driving. Unanimously, they agreed that it is a terribly important issue. One student, my friend Sultan Buti, gave me an example:

"After spending all night studying for one of our finals, I had no time to sleep so I made my way to college.

"I was driving on a five-lane street when I decided to rest my eyes for a few seconds. Sure enough, when I reopened my eyes, my car had drifted three lanes to my right. I caught the steering wheel just in time before I entered the roadside desert. I thank God everyday that the road was empty that day. Who knows what would have happened to me, or to someone else, if a car had been right beside me."

I had a similar experience myself, this April. I drove to Dubai after having gone close to 25 hours without sleep. While I thank God everyday for not making a serious mistake on the motorway, I did cause a fender-bender in a neighbourhood. I was tired and my reflexes were too slow to stop the car.

While the issue of speeding is being addressed with a lot of attention, it cannot be the only concern if the goal of zero deaths per 100,000 of population is ever to be achieved.

Solutions to the problem of ignorance on the roads are hard to come by, but that should not be the speed bump that holds us back from safer roads, now and in the future.


Salem Al Qassimi is a business student at the Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology

On Twitter: @SalemAlQassimi