x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dangers in stopping for prayer

It is not unusual to see people stopped on the side of a motorway praying, but road safety experts say the practice is 'an accident waiting to happen'.

Men stop for maghrib prayers off Sheikh Zayed Road near the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai. They were returning to their homes in Al Quoz after work in Abu Dhabi.
Men stop for maghrib prayers off Sheikh Zayed Road near the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai. They were returning to their homes in Al Quoz after work in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Road-safety experts have warned worshippers that parking on the side of a motorway to pray puts their lives at risk.

"The fact that people are praying on the road is an accident waiting to happen," said Dr Abdulilah Zineddin, a road-safety specialist in Abu Dhabi.

"Praying on the side of the road is not an emergency. There are gas stations, there are mosques where people can pray. There is no real reason for them to pray on the side of the road."

Workers risk their lives each sunset. Motorways across the country are dotted with parked buses as men disembark for maghrib prayers.

"On this island our people do the work," said Masood Kabir, 30, a carpenter from Bangladesh who has lived in the UAE for four months.

"When the time for work is finished, we pray. This is our time, our time to pray."

Mr Kabir was one of dozens of men praying recently on the patch of grass opposite the Park Rotana Hotel.

The men spread out thin sheets or plastic bags for prayer mats, removed their shoes and faced Mecca as vehicles rushed past at 120kph.

Mr Kabir finished his 13-hour shift at 6pm. For him prayer offers welcome rest, and signifies the end of the work day and a chance for renewal.

"It is filling our minds," said his friend, Habib Rahman, also a carpenter.

The bus driver, Jalil Shahnawaz from Pakistan, said the men had "no fear" of a crash, only of the police. The men finish work too late to stop at a mosque, Mr Shahnawaz said.

"There is no time," he said. "If it's prayer time I pray, always, always. I have no second thoughts. I pray and then I go.

"It's a big problem with police. If they saw this they would fine me. I'm afraid of fines but if it's time to pray, what can I do?"

Nearby, Nikhil B, 40, a Hindu electrician, waited with a dozen friends in a minibus as his driver finished prayers before continuing to Mussaffah.

This happens at least once a week but Nikhil said it is no problem. He respects his friend and says the police do too.

"We never had problems with the police," he said. "If we are praying it's OK."

Police say they do not regard praying on the roadside as a problem.

There is a Dh500 fine for stopping a vehicle on the side of the road in prohibited places but Abu Dhabi Police say an exception is made for worshippers.

"This is a normal situation," said Col Jamal Al Ameri, of the Abu Dhabi Police traffic department. "It's allowed. We don't have any problem with these people who are praying on the highway. It's acceptable, of course."

Col Al Ameri urged drivers to keep their vehicle completely off the motorway and use their hazard lights when parked.

John Hughes, a safety expert with the international traffic consultancy ARRB Group, said the practice was "extremely hazardous".

"Even if they are away from the edge of the traffic, the vehicle is still hazardous to the other traffic," said Mr Hughes, who was recently based in Abu Dhabi.

"Stopping on the side of high-speed roads is very dangerous and you shouldn't pull over on the shoulder, you should pull right off. In most countries it's actually illegal to stop on motorways unless there's an emergency."

Mr Hughes suggested worshippers allow enough time to reach rest sites where they can pray safely.

Roadside worshippers not only put themselves at risk, but block lanes needed for emergency escape and cause problems by slowing down on motorways.

"It totally goes against the safety design element that the shoulder was designed for," Dr Zineddin said.

"Vehicles are moving at over 140kph. There's a big chance that they could depart from the highway. Anything could happen."

azacharias@thenational.ae