x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE not mulling plans to impose expat driving licence restrictions

'Everybody should have the right to obtain a driving licence,' says Maj Gen Mohammed Saif Al Zafeen, director of the Dubai Police traffic department and head of the UAE Traffic Council.

Restricting the number of drivers is only feasible with commuting alternatives, says transport expert Glenn Havinoviski. Silvia Razgova / The National
Restricting the number of drivers is only feasible with commuting alternatives, says transport expert Glenn Havinoviski. Silvia Razgova / The National

ABU DHABI // The head of the UAE Traffic Council said he has not considered plans to impose restrictions on certain expatriates obtaining a driving licence.

“I’m against it,” said Maj Gen Mohammed Saif Al Zafeen, director of the Dubai Police traffic department and head of the council. “Everybody should have the right to obtain a driving licence.”

In February, the Federal Traffic Council had unanimously approved a proposal to reduce the legal driving age to 17. It has been submitted to the Ministry of Interior’s policies and strategies council.

Gen Al Zafeen had said it was “common sense” to provide young people with an opportunity to obtain a licence, and legalising it would reduce the number driving without a licence and without parental approval.

But expatriates’ driving licences are under scrutiny in neighbouring Qatar following a ban on labourers in July.

An advisory council in Qatar has recommended a review of its policy, one of the measures being taken to reduce congestion in the country, reported Qatari daily The Peninsula last week.

New driving licences for labourers have been banned since July last year in the Arabian Gulf state. Driving schools can no longer register labourers who wish to learn how to drive light and heavy vehicles. The ban excludes motorcycles.

Robert Hodges, chief operating officer at Emirates Driving Institute in Dubai, welcomed Maj Gen Al Zafeen’s comments on granting all residents access to driving licences.

“Everyone should be entitled to learn to drive and to obtain a licence,” Mr Hodges said. “In the developed world it is pretty much a right to be able to qualify as a driver.”

Most congestion during peak hours is due to commuter traffic and restricting the number of drivers on the road is only feasible if you have commuting alternatives such as public transport or company vans or buses, said Glenn Havinoviski, a transport expert in Abu Dhabi.

“Driver licensing should not be restricted based on traffic congestion, but on whether or not the prospective driver demonstrates the necessary skills to safely operate a vehicle on the road and to obey traffic regulations along with traffic control signage and displays,” he said.

Obtaining a driving licence offers benefits for both the individual and the country, Mr Hodges said.

“The individual is able to travel more easily, is able to seek better employment which often requires a driving licence. A driving licence is a major enabling factor in an individual’s life.”

For the UAE, it means that residents can contribute more fully to the economy both as wage earners and consumers.

“Those who gain better employment as a result of having a driving licence move up the employment chain, making space for new entrants to take their place and contribute to the economy,” he said. “In economic terms, a mobile workforce will ultimately be a more flexible and efficient workforce.”

Cities around the world are experimenting with regulatory restrictions, road pricing schemes and tolls, and smart mobility management to curb car ownership, said Brendan Halleman, deputy project director at the International Road Federation in the US.

“Blanket restrictions are generally not a good idea as they can have unintended side effects, such as creating an unofficial grey market for licences,” he said.

Traffic congestion will always occur in countries such as the UAE and the root cause is the climate, Mr Hodges said.

“People need air-conditioned cars to get around and survive the summer heat,” he said. “Travelling by public transport can also be time-consuming, slow and expensive for many low-paid residents, and owning a car provides a flexible, cost-effective solution.”

A licence and a car will continue to be necessary for sufficient mobility in terms of where employees live and work, Mr Hodges said.

“It should, however, be harder for all to gain a driving licence,” he said. “If we are to have more drivers on the roads of the UAE, they must be trained even better and longer than now.”

Certain restrictions on vehicles to be used by new drivers, follow-up checks and refresher training should also be considered, he said.

In February, Hussain Lootah, director general of Dubai Municipality, called for tough curbs on car ownership with the city’s rebounding economy, booming population and a rise in car sales fuelling congestion.

He recommended a salary scheme restricting car ownership to those earning above a certain monthly income; increasing parking fees, fuel costs, insurance prices; the use of green and electric cars; and encouraging residents to make greater use of public transport.