How the UAE made its roads safer

Tougher laws, speed cameras and pro-active policing have cut traffic deaths by two thirds in 10 years but motorists also have to play their part

Safety signage for drivers in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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It’s an everyday ritual followed by millions. Right now, drivers around the world are turning the key and pulling out into traffic. On the roads they will join people commuting to work, taking their children to school, making deliveries or otherwise just getting from A to B. But it is sobering to consider that, for such a quotidian activity, traffic accidents are responsible for so many deaths and life-changing injuries.

It is UN Global Road Safety Week and statistics from the organisation make for grim reading. According to the World Health Organisation, traffic injures are a leading cause of death and disability worldwide, with an estimated 1.3 million people losing their lives on the roads each year. As many as 50 million people are injured in crashes each year, with a quarter of all road deaths taking place among cyclists and pedestrians.

In the UAE, however, where the car is central to daily life, traffic deaths have fallen by two thirds in the past decade, leading some to ask – what is the key to making our roads safer?

Over the years, the Emirates has taken a determined stand against the needless tragedy of road deaths. Legislation regarding reckless driving, the use of seat belts or driving while using a mobile phone has been tightened up. In 2017, a system of black points was introduced under which a driver could be banned from the roads if they earned too many points from traffic infractions. Punishments for poor driving can include fines, black points, vehicle confiscation or even imprisonment.

ABU DHABI - 16MAR2011 - Police Ambulance team rescuing a passenger and driver of a car on the "Mock Accident" scene organised by Abu Dhabi Police as part of GCC Traffic week yesterday at Abu Dhabi Corniche. Ravindranath K / The National

As well as legal measures, the country has taken practical steps. In the capital, Abu Dhabi Police announced last September that a section of Sheikh Zayed Road would have a reduced speed limit of 100 kilometres an hour, down from 120kph. Elsewhere in the emirate, the speed limit on the Abu Dhabi to Al Ain road was reduced from 160kmph to 140kmph.

Last month saw the introduction of what is thought to be one of the highest minimum speed limits in the world – a 120kph minimum on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Road. Officials said the minimum limit – a move that was backed by a more than three quarters of respondents who took part in an Abu Dhabi Police online poll – was to ensure that slower vehicles move to the right and keep out of the way of faster drivers.

This week, Abu Dhabi Police introduced a road alert system designed to warn drivers of bad weather and traffic accidents. The coloured lights will be used to warn drivers across the emirate about hazards and to improve road safety. This new piece of road infrastructure goes hand in hand with an extensive network of advanced speed cameras across the country that reduces the chances of speeding drivers endangering themselves and others.

But the UAE is also working on more sustainable transport options to give as many people as possible the option of travelling without a car. In the major urban centres of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there is extensive public transport and more cycle lanes than ever before. At the Middle East Rail conference in Abu Dhabi this week, Gottfried Eymer, the new chief executive of the Etihad Rail freight network, told The National that trains would take huge numbers of heavy goods lorries off the roads, making them safer.

These are all positive developments but the best planning in the world can only mitigate risk, not banish it entirely. Tragedies can and do happen. In March this year, a young teacher in Abu Dhabi, Caina Healy, lost her life when she was struck by a vehicle as she was cycling to work.

Road infrastructure can be improved, vehicles can be made safer and laws can be strengthened but building a culture of road safety – one in which motorists drive responsibly, with patience and awareness – is an ongoing process that calls for vigilance. Police across the UAE have been pro-active about this, as their regular safety campaigns and updates prove. But even one death is a tragedy. When it comes to keeping our roads safe, we all have our part to play.

Published: May 18, 2023, 3:00 AM