x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Underage drivers learn the rules of the road

Many young drivers have been behind a wheel for years before they arrive at driving school.

Saif Mohammed, 18, is among underage drivers who learn the rules of the road after already spending a few years driving. Saif doesn't like wearing a seatbelt as it will 'ruin the shape of my kandura'.
Saif Mohammed, 18, is among underage drivers who learn the rules of the road after already spending a few years driving. Saif doesn't like wearing a seatbelt as it will 'ruin the shape of my kandura'.

ABU DHABI // Saif Mohammed was 18 the first time he wore a seatbelt. It was his first driving lesson after two years in the driver's seat.

Saif knows he is a better driver just six weeks into his course. He has been taught not to drive at more than 120kph, how to enter a roundabout, read signs and respect pedestrians.

"I learnt to respect the road," Saif said. He is typical of the youths who start lessons as soon as they are of age - even though they have been driving for years.

Instructors say roughly half of young drivers have been behind a wheel before when they arrive at Emirates Driving Company, the driving school of Abu Dhabi.

"A lot of them have experience with driving," said Yaser Mohammed, an evaluation officer. "Because they are young they are interested to drive."

Ahmed Ibrahim, an instructor, agreed, saying: "Generally it's a high number."

Participants can join the school at 17 to start theory lessons. At 18 they may take the road test and either go straight on the road or get placed in a class according to their ability. A good driver can finish in two days.

But young drivers are seldom as good as they think they are.

In 2011, 32 people under the age of 18 died in road crashes in Abu Dhabi, according to the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi - a rate of 6.71 per 100,000 people.

When people reach the legal driving age, the rates increase. Last year, there were 89 deaths among those age 18 to 25 in Abu Dhabi.

The incident rate of traffic deaths for that age group increased from 30.38 per 100,000 in 2010 (76 deaths) to 34.56 per 100,000 in 2011.

The overall road death rate for Abu Dhabi was 14.31 per 100,000 in 2011.

Abu Dhabi police said youths face high fines for underage driving and could spend a night or two in jail before their case goes to court.

"Maybe on the weekend they will stay in jail until they go to court," said Lt Col Jamal Al Ameri, head of public relations at the Abu Dhabi Traffic and Patrols Directorate. He warned that underage drivers could cause "huge accidents".

"They don't know about speed limits or traffic lights," said Lt Col Al Ameri. "Parents have to educate and advise their sons and daughters to know the severity of using their vehicle on the road."

When Saif's father gave him the keys to the family car at 16, he drove to the corner shop. He said he knew how to drive by instinct and thought it was easy. He has now decided that driving is "too complicated".

"I have to put on the seatbelt, I have to check the mirrors. There is a lot to do," Saif said.

Speed, aggression and recklessness are the biggest issues with young drivers - with or without experience.

"Teenagers, before they get lessons here, focus on the fun and the acceleration of the vehicle," said Syed Yasir, a practical instructor. "Here they will have more care."

Students train using simulators to become familiar with conditions such as fog, rain and darkness.

"If you start learning to drive on your own, you will take a long time to discover these things - maybe you [will] spend your whole life without reaching this level of experience," said Mr Ibrahim. "You should sit with a driver and learn the small things."

Sultan Al Marzouqi, 18, applied for his licence in January and passed after two months of lessons.

He has driven since he was 15. In his town, cruising is a popular teenage pastime. "Where I live in Shahama, all my neighbours my age drive a car," he said.

Sultan now feels safer when he drives. The school taught him to parallel park, to signal and how enter a roundabout properly - he also now always wears his seat belt.

Young people correct bad habits quickly, regardless of how many years they have been behind the wheel, the instructors said.

"When they know the facts, they will change," said Mr Mohammed. "They are interested, easy to teach. They think a speed of 40kph is normal. But after the safety hall they realise that a speed of even 10kph can have effects, so of course their behaviour will be changed." But young people often relapse into bad practices. Saif, for example, has yet to be convinced of the necessity of a seatbelt.

"It will ruin the shape of my kandura," he said. "I don't wear it when I go to the mall. I am not used to it."

Police campaigns have meant that underage driving is no longer as widespread or socially acceptable. The awareness means there is more acceptance of the centre's lessons.

"Knowledge is the difference between humans and other creations," said Mr Ibrahim. "Use your brain. Once we give you information here, you have to apply it."

azacharias@thenational.ae