The Air Bag: Mobile phones are deadly on the roads of the UAE

Neil Vorano on the shocking statistics associated with the outage of BlackBerry services.

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Sitting down with a copy of The National one morning last week, I almost spit out my coffee in shock reading one of the stories.
"BlackBerry cuts made roads safer, police say" was the headline on the front page. The story went on to quote officials from the Abu Dhabi and Dubai police departments saying that, due to the three-day disruption in BlackBerry service that week, road accidents fell by 40 per cent in Abu Dhabi and 20 per cent in Dubai during that time frame.
While it may be difficult to definitively say the entire drop was due to the BlackBerry failure, the coincidence is startling. It made me feel like doing a bit more digging on the subject, and what I found was downright disturbing.
You could spend a whole day on the Internet going through reems of data and studies from credible safety experts on the subject of calling and texting while driving, but it all seems the same after a short while. Which is exactly why it all deserves a look; let me give you a few examples of what I found:
A very recent study by Texas A&M University reports that texting or emailing doubles a driver's reaction time behind the wheel. The increase didn't change between a driver typing or simply reading email on a handheld device.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the US has found that, in 2009, 20 per cent of injury crashes involved distracted driving; of those killed in distracted-driving crashes, 18 per cent involved mobile phones.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into a crash that is likely to seriously injure them.
The University of Utah has found that using a mobile phone while driving, whether with or without a hands-free device, delays a driver's reaction as much as being legally impaired.
The Virginia Tech Institute found that texting increased a truck driver's likelihood of a collision by as much as 23 per cent. The study involved outfitting trucks that travelled the US interstates with in-cab cameras.
Whew. I could go on, but maybe you should check out the web yourself and find more statistics. Will it change your habits? Chances are it won't; we've all done it, and it seems pretty innocuous at the time, either sitting in traffic or on a motorway. It's time these attitudes changed.
It can be done; look at the change in attitudes towards drink driving; years of media and government campaigns have helped to give it a social stigma and it is now something most of us avoid.
But the single biggest reason drink driving has been reduced around the world - and here in the UAE - are the penalties. Drivers caught over the limit usually lose their licence for a year, with harsher penalties following further convictions.
It's going to take these kind of actions to battle texting and calling while driving. As I've pointed out many times in this column, people are lazy and inconsiderate by nature, and they usually won't change their ways for the better unless they're forced to. And that means stiff penalties - yes, like losing your licence - for using a mobile while driving, even if you're not involved in an accident. A Dh200 fine, which is what you can expect here in the UAE if you're caught, just doesn't cut it.
Texting and calling while driving has been proven to be a danger on our roads, just as drink driving has been, and forcing people to put away their phones will save lives.