x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Road improvements? A simple lesson on driving culture

The UAE spends a lot of money on road improvement, which is good, but what's also needed is quite a lot of driver improvement.

As we leave behind the uneven, temporary roundabout where the Emirates and Al Khail roads meet, we feel as if we've just successfully negotiated a crash landing. My wife lets out her unconscious, yet usual sigh of relief as our velocity slowly increases in line with the road's straightaway ahead.

Drivers on our roads are no strangers to roadworks, especially in Dubai, where the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) spent Dh10.7 billion in 2010 (with the financial crisis in full swing). Building bridges costs money, and the RTA is Dubai Government's biggest spender.

I'm proud of the planning and money that have been invested in our road network. Having visited and driven on almost every continent, I can say that our roads are some of the best in the world. Most people have seen the before-and-after pictures of Sheikh Zayed Road taken in 1991 and in the last decade. The UAE is not ashamed to spend big to grow.

Back on the infamous Emirates Road, however, we noticed the same phenomenon that is present on most motorways of the UAE; cars crossing lanes at random speeds, reminiscent of those Brownian motion experiments from science lab, mapping the supposedly random movements of objects.

Lane discipline is almost non-existent and only one thing matters: bigger cars and brighter headlights determine the pecking order. And the more lanes, the more dangerous the road. Emirates Road was the deadliest road in the UAE for a while, an "honour" now bestowed on Bypass Road, which has even more lanes.

It is clear that there is little relation between the quality of the roads and driving standards. Our road network is excellent and the general wisdom is that speeding is the cause of all (driving) evil, thus the prevalence of speed cameras.

My view is slightly different. Speed is dangerous, but it is relative. Driving a well-maintained Porsche on a straight bit of motorway at 130kmh is perfectly safe, yet doing the same while zigzagging during rain or dense fog is suicidal.

The main cause of accidents and traffic congestion is a combination of speed and bad lane discipline. Changing lanes at high speed spells trouble in any vehicle, be it a Formula 1 car or a Lexus 4x4. Thus wider roads are statistically more dangerous given prevailing levels of driver education and competence.

Take a typical stretch of Emirates Road, which is six lanes wide. The far left lane, call it lane one, is for fast cars. Lorries are generally restricted to lanes five and six. The other lanes, however, are usually chaotic because of a lack of training and enforcement.

Paradoxically, lane two is the most congested (even though it should be the second-fastest lane) and is the home to slower breeds such as old, white Toyota Corollas. The reason is that the majority of drivers think that they should use lane two as the slow lane, and use lane one when overtaking. This works in other countries where the driving culture has adapted to motorways with just two lanes.

In the UAE, this creates two systems within a single carriageway: lane two now separates the fast lane one from four other lanes of traffic to the right. When an impatient driver in lane one finds the road ahead congested, he might resort to suddenly slowing down to change lanes, which also can be dangerous.

Other dangerous habits can be observed as well, such as driving in the lane that offers the best visibility. This creates a barrier of three or four vehicles driving abreast of each other, oblivious of faster cars behind them. This lack of lane discipline causes congestion and can also lead to accidents.

Lane discipline is the simple act of tending to one side of the road (typically the right in the UAE). When a slower vehicle is found ahead, one is supposed to overtake to the left, then return to the right when past the slower car. In a typical three-lane motorway, lane three has the slowest vehicles and lane one has the fastest. It seems like a basic lesson, but it really needs to be learnt by more people.

As we left the Emirates and Al Khail roundabout behind us, we saw the typical sign: "Sorry for the inconvenience caused by road improvements. Building the future of Dubai." Perhaps one day we will spend as much on "driver improvements" as we do on "road improvements". Only then will we truly be "building the future of Dubai".


Mohamad Al Dah is an engineer and social commentator based in Dubai