Absurd parking, unmannerly driving and disdain for the rules of the road (do they even exist?) can be found in every society. But as oceans of ink - and, tragically, blood - will attest, the dominant trend on the roads in the UAE can most charitably be called "freestyle". Of course, there are many components to this issue, including culture, social class and enforcement. But for my money the most satisfying explanation of why driver behaviour is so unruly revolves around the concept of abstraction.
Abstraction is a complicated notion with many diverse applications, but for my purposes it is the process of acknowledging a general concept based on common and consistent examples; we recognise an idea and use it to guide our behaviour, almost as if the idea were something physical. The result is general adherence to a "rule" that is both predictable and one of the preconditions of civil society.
One easy example of abstraction is the white lines that denote a parking space. These lines of paint are meaningless in themselves; crossing or straddling them has no physical effect on a car or its driver. Yet as an abstract concept they (should) represent barriers: they are walls without substance. General practice, however, has strayed far from the theoretical. Look around any car park and see a picture of chaos, with cars strewn capriciously in disregard of the lines.
There is a language of everyday objects, but as with all languages a community of users must agree on the definitions and structure to ensure accurate communication. We have more or less achieved consensus on the abstraction found in traffic signals: red lights mean "stop". But lane markers, particularly solid versus dotted lines, painted kerbs that indicate no parking, and now the traffic signals dedicated to each lane, seem to represent concepts that are still obscure to a large segment of the driving public. Is it any wonder, then, that behaviour on the roads is unpredictable?
Other types of abstraction include anticipation and projection: expecting the reaction to a given action, and imagining the consequences to others of that action. Neither of these abstract processes surfaces often, save for the most obvious examples. Granted, most motorists anticipate that ploughing into a lamppost will have a negative consequence. But more subtle opportunities for anticipation are neglected.
Driving is a complex task that requires constant anticipation and projection, and imagining, for example, how a lane change will affect subsequent options must be encouraged. These concepts need to be drilled permanently into the minds of driving students, and traffic police need to remind "experienced" drivers to practise these ideas using on-the-spot fines and disruption of their "important" journeys.
I vividly remember from my own driving lessons, ages ago, the abstract concept of "aiming high". The instructor insisted that we look beyond the car directly in front of us and constantly anticipate manoeuvres in advance of action. Similarly, many learners failed their driving test because they neglected to check their mirrors to judge, and respect, the presence of other cars behind or alongside. Remember the abstract concept of a "safe stopping distance" that guided behaviour?
Blocking a lane by lazily double parking - even "just for a minute" - defies sense. The only logical reason that so many people behave in this selfish and unmannerly is pure, antisocial disrespect. "My time is more important than your time," is the presumed attitude. It boggles the mind to see cars double parked in front of an empty space. When you ask the driver why he doesn't simply pull into the space, it's as if you've asked why he doesn't slam his fingers in the door: bewilderment that belies not a hint of recognition that his actions are socially unacceptable. Abstractly projecting the consequences of these actions on other drivers simply does not figure in the equation.
As an educator, I often have discussions about the importance of critical thinking. Academics generally agree that this is a high-priority skill that needs considerable attention and provides an opportunity to equip students with abilities to navigate the complexity of modern life. Abstraction is a bedrock component of critical thinking; it is an antidote to rigid literal thinking and passive acceptance of ideas without recourse to their merits. Can we use improved abstract thinking on the roads to spur more critical thinking in other areas? It would be nice to think so.
Beyond the usual suspects - driving instructors, traffic police and road planners - the public has a role to play. Leading by good example is a game many have doggedly played; long may they continue to do so. But the public has a further role: to teach by courteous reminders and respectful comments. When your taxi driver behaves like a fool, upbraid him. When fellow parents on the school run triple park, suggest to them they should not block traffic. When someone rolls down the window to ask to be let in to cross four lanes of traffic just before the lights, suggest that he think about his turn further in advance.
I realise that this sounds naive, but when I think about how many times, in Germany for example, I have been chided by members of the public (often little old ladies) for crossing the street against the light, or, in the US, confronted by a note on my windscreen asking why I have parked like an idiot, I do believe that the public can play a partial role in behaviour modification. Besides, we are all in this society together, and we have a duty to encourage each other towards more civilised mutual respect.
Dr Christopher K Brown is founding director of the College of International and Advanced Studies at Zayed University