Road Safety

August 06, 2011

There was no siren, but everything else the police did to our car spoke of a proper 'bust.’ We were not speeding; we were neither a group of smugglers nor a wanted group that a police car suddenly spotted and decided to stop us. We were clearly a family ending our holidays in a northern European country and heading to the airport in a rented van with a local driver. Our crime? We were nine in a car made for seven.

The policeman’s face was sombre, and the policewoman, also in full gear, was no more comforting. I was surprised when the driver warned us of this at the start of the journey, and surprised even more by his certainty of this outcome. The doors were opened on both sides, and it was only a little cry let out by an infant in the car, my youngest niece, that broke the silence.

The policeman smiled and started explaining in perfect English why he had to stop us. The policewoman, in strong disapproval, kept her aloofness. We were endangering the lives of the infant and the other child by not putting them in their proper baby seat. We thought the police stopped us to reprimand and to instruct, but they also issued the driver a violation in spite of his growing protests, and ordered a taxi for half the group to continue the journey to the airport. Their expression did not leave much scope to argue or give and take as we do with our police, so we swallowed our pride and conformed.

That morning, as we set out to the airport, we wanted to be together in the same car to avoid losing each other in this foreign country…yes, totally emotional and irrational. We were no more likely to lose each other than to miss the airport, but that’s how we operate. It’s really our culture of not giving enough importance to the child seat and to safety on the road. It is therefore not surprising that we have a record level of accidents and injuries on our roads. We have created the laws, but not the culture!

Imagine a policeman stopping a car in Muscat, Kuwait, or Abu Dhabi for overcrowding the vehicle, and I am not talking about a van crammed with standing workers, but about an extra child in her mother’s lap. Imagine the reaction of the passenger and driver. They must think the officer is utterly mad and may well choose to ignore him. They may even challenge him and lodge a complaint. Worst yet, the complaint may be entertained and the 'violation' dropped. I see children in the front seats waving their arms all the time, their parents oblivious to the danger.

This is only a simple type of our cultural violation. We have youth proud of their blatant disregard of road manners and even exporting this brand of driving to their summer destinations. This is not the first year in which the UK authorities impounded a number of super cars belonging to Gulf youngsters in one of London’s posh suburbs.

It’s not enough that these speed-crazed delinquents were not punished in their home countries; their parents bought them racing machines to terrorise motorists and pedestrians everywhere. How many super cars were impounded in our neighbourhoods? How many repeat 'offenders' had their driving licences suspended? And this notable trait of defying rules and road safety has democratically spread in all parts of our society. It’s not just the super cars, but normal sedans, taxis (oh, especially taxis), explosive gas-carrying trucks, and water delivery monsters.

There will be endless controls and lessons that our law enforcers can adopt. One of my favourites is the use of a sticker with a speed limit of 80kmph for new drivers. Another is the use of a strict point system. All these, however, will not deny the fact that drivers get a rush from accelerating.

If you sit behind the wheels of an angry 5-Ser-ies or a red Boxter, your driving personality is bound to change. To rein in the animal in you, maybe you need an occasional sobering sign, like one that says, 'Ahmed died here.’

Many years ago, I was caught speeding. A police officer made me watch a 30-minute video on road accidents. Hanging on the corridor walls leading to the exit were images of wrecked cars and equally wrecked lives. The images were disturbing, and they changed my attitude towards speeding.

I was also recently stopped for speeding – what a hypocrite, right? Well, not exactly. I was visiting someone inside an oil company area, and was apparently doing 60kmph in a 40kmph zone. Although I protested and questioned the company guard’s authority, I could not help admiring the man’s sense of duty, like I do now the European policeman’s who protected my child’s right to safety on the road. I was off limit, and his shrill whistle was enough to stop me. 

I can see his logic now; the last thing I want my car to crash into is an oil tank.

Anees is a local businessman and writer interested in a wide variety of issues.