The shock of the new can only slow you down for so long

Tunnel vision by drivers in Abu Dhabi is seeing Deborah Lindsay Williams left in the wake of speeding cars.

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Last autumn, something amazing happened underneath the convoluted intersections around Mina. As drivers entered the newly opened Sheikh Zayed Tunnel, which has a speed limit of 60kph, they slowed down to the posted limit. Even the fanciest cars fell into line and we all went through the tunnel as decorously as if we were en route to a funeral.

I can’t explain why it happened, this sudden decision to observe the speed limit. Maybe it was the novelty of the tunnel; maybe people slowed down to marvel at the feats of engineering involved in re-routing traffic so effectively, but whatever the cause, the tunnel quashed Abu Dhabi drivers’ penchant for speed.

For a few months, anyway.

By now, of course, the tunnel’s magic has vanished. People race through the tunnel as if they’re afraid of the dark and can’t wait to get to the other side. I feel sometimes like a slow-moving ball in an arcade game, buffeted by cars weaving past on both sides.

It’s the curse of human nature, I think. We too quickly get used to the amazing, to the miraculous. Think about how often you complain about your patchy mobile phone service, for instance, rather than simply marvelling at the fact that you even have the option to call a friend in Beirut while you’re sitting on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche beach. I remember the first time I saw a someone talking on a mobile phone as he walked along a street in midtown Manhattan. The phone was as big as his shoe and I followed him for blocks, trying to figure out where he’d hidden the phone’s cord, because of course in those days, all phones had to be attached to an outlet somewhere.

Even cars themselves were once miraculous: horseless carriages that sped along at 15 or 20 kph. Now cars are the size of small ships and we pilot them with one hand while we sip coffee, put on make-up, shush children and gesticulate at other drivers. The amazing has become mundane.

Maybe it’s precisely because driving has become so mundane that people don’t take it seriously, roadside wreckage and accident reports notwithstanding. In Abu Dhabi, a city that owes almost everything to car culture, driving is as ordinary as breathing. And when was the last time, outside of yoga class, that anyone paid any attention to breathing?

But maybe people don’t drive respectfully because the traffic patterns seem like they’ve been designed by blindfolded children playing with finger paints. As evidence of that theory, I offer pretty much every parking garage in every mall in Abu Dhabi or – an even better example – that particular form of roadway nightmare known as “the round­about”.

Think about how many times you’ve heard “take the first, no wait the second, oh sorry, you’ll have to go around again” or gasped in horror as someone leapfrogged from inner to outer lane in a desperate attempt to escape the centrifuge. Roundabouts seem designed to ruin friendships, sunder marriages and reduce intelligent people to gibbering idiots, terrified that they’ll be forever trapped in rotary hell.

Or perhaps I’ve got the wrong idea entirely. Perhaps people think they are honouring the automotive tradition by seeing how fast they can get from the right-hand merge to the leftmost turn lane. Or maybe they speed in honour of the early days of horseless carriages, when pedestrians used to leap in fear at the sight of the metal monsters bearing down on them.

In the interest of full disclosure, however, I have to admit that I am also guilty of forgetting that my car is actually a two-tonne tool of potential destruction. I fiddle with the AC, hand out after-school snacks and, yes, I speed. But I blame my speeding on peer-pressure, that age-old cause of bad behaviour. After all, if everyone else is speeding, I either step on the gas or risk that the speedster behind me flashing his lights will simply drive right over me in his haste to get where he’s going (usually the next traffic light.)

Every now and then, when the tunnel traffic momentarily settles back to a sedate pace, I wonder if drivers everywhere in Abu Dhabi will settle down, too. Then I remember that innocence lost can’t be regained: once you’ve tasted speed, it’s hard to slow down. And I suppose I could make my peace with the speedsters, if they would only start using their signals as they jet across five lanes of traffic to catch the last split-second of the left-turn arrow.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi