x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Road accidents in the Gulf: the fastest way to die in the region

Take our poll: The crash in Oman late last month that wiped out seven members of an Al Ain family has highlighted the daily carnage on the roads of GCC nations.

Speed kills: reckless driving is rampant in Saudi Arabia, and with it comes a heavy toll in human lives. Eric Lafforgue / arabianEye / Corbis
Speed kills: reckless driving is rampant in Saudi Arabia, and with it comes a heavy toll in human lives. Eric Lafforgue / arabianEye / Corbis

The crash in Oman late last month that wiped out seven members of an Al Ain family has highlighted the daily carnage on the roads of GCC nations.

Saudi Arabia's official accident figures tell the grim cost of driving standards in the kingdom, both human and economic.

According to the Interior Ministry's annual report for 2010, the economic cost from accidents was an estimated 21 billion riyals (Dh20.6bn), while the number of fatalities rose by 10 per cent in just a year.

That works out at an average of 19.1 deaths a day on Saudi roads, making them among the most dangerous in the world.

On any given day, motorists can be seen running red lights, speeding, racing, or driving in a reckless and aggressive fashion.

"Just drive for a few minutes and you will see someone running the red lights," says Said Khouri, 36, a Lebanese contractor who lives in Jeddah. "Then drive on the motorway and see how people pass you speeding on the shoulder, or get up on your rear. It's very, very dangerous."

A Saudi resident is more likely to be killed or injured in a traffic accident than in a murder or an assault, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a US government body created to promote security cooperation between American companies abroad and the US Department of State. It is an indicator that Saudi Arabia is a relatively safe country, save for its driving habits.

According to the council's 2012 report: "One common denominator among reported accidents throughout Saudi Arabia is speed, which increases both the number of accidents and their lethality. Aggressive driving is often paired with high speed, with drivers racing, driving on the shoulder to pass, weaving through traffic, and cutting off other drivers."

The report says road rage is common and sometimes leads to physical violence. Texting while driving is also common, and when combined with high speeds and heavy traffic leads to numerous accidents.

Lax enforcement of traffic laws is also blamed.

"We face a major problem here in that the police do not enforce the law," said Faris Al-Ghamdi, 37, a Saudi engineer who suffered a fractured spine three years ago when a driver running a red light ploughed into his sports car. "The other problem is that drivers here think they are above the law, almost invincible. They do whatever they want. Look what all the kids have done about Saher."

Two years ago, Saudi Arabia introduced Saher, an automated traffic control and management system that covers major cities and uses digital cameras linked to the Ministry of Interior's national information centre to register violations. Although it has been credited with saving countless lives by forcing the vast majority to slow down, it is easily foiled.

Motorists of all ages are covering up their front and rear licence plates to make it impossible for violations to be recorded against them.

Zaid Al-Hamzi, spokesman for the Jeddah traffic police, confirmed that Saher was unable to register violations against vehicles with altered licence plates.

"We are using the unmarked traffic patrols cars to find cars that have their plates covered. When part of the licence plate is covered, the cameras are unable to register the violation. But when our secret patrols find a car with its plates covered, the vehicle is impounded for at least a week and the driver is forced to pay a heavy fine."

According to Mr Al-Ghamdi, that is not happening.

"You will see so many cars with their plates covered. That speaks volumes about the average Saudi motorist's respect for the law and its enforcement," he said.

One factor that makes Saudi driving unique is that there are no women drivers. Instead women must rely on the males in the family or a driver to take them places. Regardless, many women do have a view on driving standards.

"I hate going out on the road, they are so congested and full of bad drivers," said Hala Al Qurashi, 32, from Khobar. "Only recently I have started taking the taxi when my husband or driver can't come to pick me up at the time I need to leave. But I am not always lucky and end up with a bad taxi driver so I sit and pray I arrive in one piece."

The mother of two would prefer to drive herself and her children to school, believing she would be a safer driver.

"They are not the driver's children and so he wouldn't be as careful as I would be on the road with them."

Mrs Al Qurashi was in a major crash as a child on her way back from school, when a car ran a red light and smashed into a car carrying her and her two sisters.

"Thank God we were in a big car and only had minor bruises and neck problems," she said. "We could have easily been killed."

Another Saudi woman said she has seen a dramatic improvement in road safety in Jeddah in recent years.

"The cameras they put up along the roads are working, you don't see many drivers racing between themselves over 180 kilometre per hour inside the city streets," said Dr Nouf Al Ahmed.

She believes one of the core problems is that many young drivers do not have a driving licence, or if they do, have obtained it through "wasta" instead of a real test.

"You see kids on the road, some that look 11 years old, behind the wheel. Where are the parents? Where are the police? They are very dangerous and end up killing people."

Alia, who asked for her last name to be withheld, lost her father 10 years ago in a crash when he was driving to Mecca from Jeddah.

"He was left there by the car that hit him, with the police finding him two days later. That is unacceptable," she said.

"He could have been saved if someone stopped and checked on him. There are no manners on the roads here, everyone is out for themselves."

newsdesk@thenational.ae