x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Dangerous driving is rooted in UAE culture, poll suggests

UAE residents express a growing concern towards the level of road safety in the country.

ABU DHABI // Dangerous driving remains ingrained in the UAE's car culture - with many residents apparently in denial about the extent to which they are endangering their children's lives, a survey suggests.

Of 763 respondents surveyed for Al Aan TV's Nabd al Arab ("Arabs' Pulse") by YouGov Siraj, 81 per cent expressed concern about the existing road safety standards.

Three quarters called for irresponsible or illegal driving to carry tougher penalties.

But some residents say that may not be enough.

"We have to face the fact that when it comes to the UAE, fines don't always work," said Ahmad Khalil, a Lebanese executive in Abu Dhabi.

In the first five months of this year there were 2,618 traffic accidents and 338 road users were killed, according to figures from the Ministry of Interior. In Al Ain alone, 300,000 speeding tickets were issued in the first three months of this year.

Figures from 2009 Global Status Report on Road Safety show that 37.1 people were killed on the country's roads for every 100,000, against a global average of 18.8.

"It's something that exists deep within the roots of our culture," said Mr Khalil. "It's going to take more than a hefty fine to curb these dangerous habits."

But he said the black points system, which allows a car to be impounded if the driver accumulates enough points, was a good start.

Police are also taking steps to crack down on reckless driving. In Abu Dhabi, the speed limit on the road to Dubai has been reduced from 160kph to 140kph, with fines kicking in at 141kph.

Still, dangerous behaviour remains common.

Almost two-thirds of respondents (62pc) admitted using a mobile phone, without hands-free, while driving. And more than a quarter (28pc) admitted tailgating.

"I don't even realise that I'm doing it," said Mr Khalil, 27. "Before I know it the car in front of me has moved out of the way. But all it takes is for it to brake unexpectedly to get into an accident. And going at 140kph would probably make it lethal."

Despite these admissions, there are some areas where respondents appeared reluctant to appear irresponsible. Almost two thirds (62pc) said they would restrain their children in a car seat, as well as a fifth (19pc) who said they would use a normal seat with a seat belt.

But public health experts and authorities put the real figures far lower. Data presented by the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) in January suggested that only 2 per cent of children were properly restrained in vehicles.

Traffic accidents were one of the main causes for mortality for children aged under 3, according to Salim Adib, Haad's manager of public health and research.

"We still have a long way to go," said Mr Adib. "It's a heavy battle and we are aware of that."

Large families presented a significant challenge, Dr Adib said. "An average Emirati family has between four and five children," he said. "So imagine trying to line them up all in one car. Even without a car seat it would be difficult. So it's more than just distributing car seats. It's a sociological change in the way families perceive themselves and their future."

The Ministry of Interior recently said it was planning to make child car seats mandatory. The new law is expected to be in effect before the end of the year.

Even then, the question remains of how it will be enforced.

"People are well aware of what they can or cannot do," said Dana Shadid, a producer at Al Aan Television, "but some people still continue to break the laws, at great risk to themselves and others.

"If the child gives parents a difficult time, they give in to it and allow them to sit on their lap or in another dangerous position. It's as though they are gambling with their lives."

She said the challenge would be to convince drivers of the value of car seats. "Harsher penalties will not always work. Drivers need to truly understand the implications of their decisions before they get behind the wheel."

Amira Wali, a public health manager at Al Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi, where every new parent receives a free car seat, was more optimistic about the results of the survey. She said the figures represented a notable improvement on previous findings. The hospital has distributed nearly 8,000 car seats in the past year, with plans to distribute more.

"It has become a hospital policy," she said. "Parents can also be educated on how to properly install and fit a car seat at our newborn safety centre."

While parents with difficult children may give in and allow them not to be strapped in, there are techniques to help children accept the child restraints.

"It's all about conditioning," she said. "We always encourage parents to start from a very early age, ideally from their children's birth. As they grow older, it's much more difficult to convince children to sit in a car seat, especially if they've never been required to before."

Fieldwork for the survey was conducted between June 12 and June 21. The margin of error is 4pc.

Nabd Al Arab is on Al Aan TV at 8pm tonight.

mismail@thenational.ae