Even pedestrians who know better routinely risk their lives by darting in front of traffic because there are few convenient alternatives.
The UAE's pedestrian danger spots
One mistimed step, a moment's hesitation, a hasty decision, and Umair Baig knows the score. "This is the number one dangerous road in Abu Dhabi," the Pakistani lorry driver said yesterday, his eyes scanning for openings in the traffic before a mad dash across four lanes at Mussafah Industrial Road, or 8th Street.
"For number one deaths in Abu Dhabi, this is here," he said gravely. "This is too much dangerous." Mr Baig, 22, was among 65 pedestrians spotted jaywalking on the busy motorway within one hour from 8.15am. He recalls witnessing at least three deaths, all resulting from traffic collisions along the very stretch of road he scampered across yesterday - as he has on every working day for the past five years.
"You see this every day. Crack, like this," he said, punching his fists together. "And a person is dead." Mr Baig said the last fatal accident he witnessed occurred on Monday - the same day that three young Emirati girls were struck and killed while attempting to cross the street on Airport Road near the Carrefour hypermarket. "The cars come with too much speed," he said. Vehicles yesterday rumbled along Mussafah Industrial Road at an average 76kph. The posted speed limit is 60kph, and one car was caught on radar travelling at 103kph.
In Mussafah, dozens of labourers - some clutching scrap metal and spare motor parts - sprinted across the streets in the morning to sort out their banking, grab a snack or simply get to work. Mr Baig estimated that the nearest traffic signal was 1.5 km away. "I can cross here only 100 metres," he said, gesturing between the Dubai Bank of Commerce and his garage, located directly across eight lanes of highway.
Abou Youssef, an Emirati petro- chemical engineer, rested on a skip to catch his breath after having jogged through the traffic. "This is an adventure every day," he shouted above the roar of lorries. "The adventure is: if he goes to cross, maybe he does not know if he comes back or not." Mr Youssef, 35, said he had seen at least three accidents along the same stretch of road in five years. He blamed the unfortunate pedestrians for misjudging their timing.
"It is just seconds between the cars," he said. "This makes the difference." He noted that employees from the many motor service centres lining the streets regularly crossed unlawfully and with little regard for approaching traffic. They did so at their own peril to reach ATMs, restaurants and money exchange agents, he said. He noted that KFC, Pizza Hut and most of the banks were on the other side.
Mr Youssef called for the construction of either a pedestrian underpass or a footbridge. Mr Baig agreed. "If the municipality does this," he said, "there will be no accident. No deaths. All the people will use this." Pedestrians also took chances outside the Al Raha Mall, along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai road, otherwise known as E11. Clutching his hard hat in one hand and a sackful of food in the other, Ather Ishtiak bounded over the barrier separating the motorway from the mall's car park.
By noon, vehicles were clocked travelling at an average 112kph, and one car zipped by at 134kph. Mr Ishtiak, 29, said many labourers working in Khalifa City, across from Al Raha, regularly risked life and limb by cutting through the highway to have a meal or snack in the air-conditioned mall. Seven other jaywalkers vaulted over traffic barricades to reach either side of the road. "Very dangerous," Mr Ishtiak observed. Then he smiled as he prepared to cross four lanes to reach the centre divide.
Later in the afternoon in Dubai, workers leaving Al Quoz Industrial Area dashed through Umm Suqeim towards the nearby Mall of the Emirates. Mustafa Akbar, 35 and a mechanic from Pakistan, said hailing a taxi to the mall would have cost him as much as Dh30 (US$8). "From here to there by taxi is too long," he said. "This is too much money. So I have no choice. What to do?" The walk to the nearest pedestrian crossing, he pointed out, would probably take as long as it would to reach the mall's doors. Traffic along Umm Suqeim rolled through at an average speed of 83kph in a 60kph zone. The fastest car was clocked at 101kph.
In one hour there were 11 jaywalkers, some of whom ran towards air-conditioned bus shelters. At the E311 motorway, also known as Emirates Road, several labourers working on Dubai Sports City and Jumeirah Village raced from end to end of the four-lane streets in both directions. The expressway has a speed limit of 120kph, and traffic was actually clocked below the limit at an average of only 87 kph. The top speed recorded was 103kph.
Nevertheless, Sarth Krishean, an Indian electrician, said it was too dangerous to cross. "I see one, two, three persons almost accident," he said, resting in the shade of a tree on the side of the expressway. "The man cannot see and the car suddenly brakes. The car is nearly touching the man." Mr Krishean, 27, said he would like to see zebra crossings or pedestrian bridges built so people can walk across the road safely.
"Every day, maybe 100 people are crossing," he said. "To have maybe a zebra crossing, maybe a bridge would be good for our safety." A recent report from the World Health Organisation put the UAE's roads among the most dangerous in the world, using 2007 figures to calculate that they account for 37.1 deaths for every 100,000 residents. According to figures gathered by police in the UAE, there were 2,138 pedestrian/vehicle accidents in 2008 compared with 2,022 the year before. The high number of pedestrian fatalities contributes to the UAE's high overall traffic death toll - 1,071 in 2008, up from 1,056 in 2007.
There were 26 pedestrians killed in Abu Dhabi during the first two and a half months of this year; 24 people died crossing roads in Dubai during the same period. There were 754 pedestrian/vehicle accidents in Dubai last year, compared with 665 the year before. Last year 663 pedestrians in Abu Dhabi were struck by cars, up from 583 in 2007. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Matt Chung