Taking the wheel in the UAE can mean dicing with death, as The National proved on a drive between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Cavalcade of reckless driving
It is a typical late Thursday afternoon in Abu Dhabi. Thousands of commuters, eager to beat the worst of the weekend exodus from the capital, head for the highway, bound for Dubai and in a hurry to get there, many with little apparent regard for their own safety or that of other road users. On a recent weekend a film crew from The National went with them to document a general standard of driving to which most who use Sheikh Zayed Road daily have become immune, but which continues to shock the outside world. Last month a report from the World Health Organisation labelled the roads of the UAE as among the most dangerous in the world, claiming 37.1 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2007 - twice the global average.
The footage captured by The National shows why. Drivers speeding in excess of 160kph, changing lanes erratically, tailgating (accompanied by impatient flashing of headlights), overtaking in inside lanes and, even more dangerously, on the hard shoulders of the highway; all acts that are, in theory at least, illegal but which are standard procedure for the many drivers whose behaviour ranges from discourteous to downright reckless.
The tone for The National's journey is set within a few blocks of setting out from the office at 5pm. Parked by the side of Muroor Road, near the 19th Street intersection, is a small white saloon car, its grill smashed. Police are at the scene. Leaving the city, we enter the long stretch of roadworks and construction by the Al Raha Beach development. The road narrows into two lanes, flanked by orange-and-white construction barriers and flashing signs that warn motorists to keep to 80kph - an instruction that is, for the most part, ignored.
Both lanes are full, with bumper-to-bumper cars - the concept of "safe stopping distance" appears unknown, or at least unheeded - but speeding vehicles quickly stack up behind us, uncomfortably close and flashing their headlights in an attempt to bully us, and each other, out of the way. In the heavy traffic it is unclear where they think they can go, but the message is clear; each driver seems to think that they are the most important person on the road and that all other traffic should move aside for them. None seems to have the patience to wait for the roadworks to end, as they do within a few kilometres. Instead, they risk their lives - and those of the drivers around them - by swerving over the solid white lines onto the hard shoulder to the left, kicking up dust and flying past, one after the other, in a cavalcade of reckless abandon. The driver of one silver saloon speeds past at 140kph or more, forcing his car between us and the concrete barrier with dangerously little room to spare. A fast-moving 4x4 also slips onto the hard shoulder; it races by, only narrowly missing a grey Nissan Patrol whose driver also decides that the rules do not apply to him and starts to pull across - without signalling, naturally. Leaving the construction zone, the road widens to four lanes near the desert outpost city of Shahama, where we seek the relative safety of the slower-moving right-hand lanes. Here, our heavy 4x4 is continually buffeted by cars overtaking at speeds well in excess of the 120kph limit - 160, 180, 200kph - and generating draughts so strong that we are pushed across to the right. Even in the right-hand lane, with plenty of space to our left in which others can overtake us, we are not spared. The driver of one 4x4, for example, inexplicably elects to pass us on the hard shoulder, immediately to our right. As we approach the emirate of Dubai, with its array of regularly spaced speed cameras, drivers slow noticeably but continue to break other rules, tailgating and making erratic moves, sometimes in swift, sweeping turns across up to four lanes. One green Toyota saloon cuts across three lanes in front of our car just in time to make the turning for an Enoc petrol station on the right. It is just luck that there is no faster vehicle coming up in the lane to our right. Darkness falls as we turn back for Abu Dhabi at the Jebel Ali exit. Now the flashing of headlights by impatient speeding motorists becomes dangerous as well as discourteous, making it difficult to see if it is safe to move across to the inside lane. Travelling at the speed limit seems only to make us a target, no matter what lane we are in. Back at the Al Raha Beach development we experience the same pack bullying that had marked our outward journey at this spot. Among the dozens of vehicles that attach themselves to our rear bumper, lights flashing and all but forcing us out of their way, a black Mercedes stands out. Flying up behind us, clearly speeding, the driver flashes his lights even though it is obvious there is nowhere we can go. Undeterred, he swerves onto the hard shoulder to overtake, gesturing in our direction. As we search for a chance to move to the right, a white Toyota Land Cruiser with blacked-out windows pulls dangerously close behind us. The driver does not flash his lights - he just leaves them on full beam. This only frustrates his purpose, because now it is impossible to see if it is safe to move across. Finally, we spot a gap and move into it, but not quickly enough for the man on our rear bumper. First he pulls alongside, powers down his nearside window and shouts at us. Whatever pressing business he had that had made it so urgent that he pass is apparently forgotten; now he falls back and pulls behind us again. There he stays, bumper-to-bumper, headlights on full, for five minutes. When he finally tires of the game, he pulls out and speeds away in the fast lane - but not before swerving dangerously towards us as he passes. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org