Fatal accident echoes deadly fog pile-up

Two years after Fog Tuesday, when four died in a 200-car pile-up, poor visibility claims more victims.

Two years after Fog Tuesday, when four people were killed and hundreds injured in a 200-car pile-up, poor visibility was blamed for another deadly chain reaction. Almost two years to the day after the horrific crash in Ghantoot that became known as Fog Tuesday, a pile-up in Jebel Ali killed a bus driver and injured 40 other people. In an echo of the carnage on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai motorway on March 11, 2008, yesterday's morning commute saw between 20 and 30 cars involved in a deadly chain reaction.

The accident happened on the Jebel Ali-Lehbab road, which leads up to Emirates Road, before 7am.It began when a bus carrying labourers hit a cement truck. Another truck then slammed into the bus, killing its driver instantly. Police were unclear if the bus was in the middle of the road or on the hard shoulder at the time of the accident. "The truck was speeding and because of the foggy conditions the driver did not notice the two vehicles," said the police official. "As a result of the crash, the bus was then trapped between the two trucks."

Rescue workers had to use hydraulic cutters to prise open the bus, which was stuck between the two lorries, and free the labourers trapped inside. Four people were seriously hurt and 34 suffered moderate and mild injuries. Minish Kumar, of Galaxy Building Contractor, said three of his 15 employees were injured. "The three of them were sent to hospital," he said. "One had leg injuries and the other two were being examined at the hospital."

Heavy fog warnings were flashed across all traffic information signs in Dubai, telling motorists to slow down and warning them of the dangers of driving in fog. Hussein Mohammed al Banna, the director of the traffic department at RTA Traffic and Roads Agency, advised motorists to heed safety messages. Drivers were asked to use their low beams to improve visibility. "If there is a lack of vision, or the motorist cannot drive the car safely, we're asking them to pull over and wait for the fog to lift or for better visibility," he said.

Despite lessons learned from the 200-car pile-up two years ago, in which four people died and 350 were injured during early morning rush hour, yesterday's crash showed that motorists are still not adjusting their speed to match bad weather conditions. In fact, some motorists seem to have a carefree attitude towards the phenomenon, which usually occurs during the winter. "It doesn't matter for me because I think [the fog] is very rare," said Ahmed Hafez, 33, from Egypt, at an Adnoc petrol station on the motorway.

He said that when there was fog, his response was to lower his speed from about 160kph to about 140 kph. "It happens only maybe seven days a year. We can manage with this," he said. However, officials said the accident in Ghantoot was a wake-up call. Brig Gen Ghaith al Zaabi, the director of the federal traffic department, said that, in the crash's aftermath, the ministry conducted a survey of traffic safety methods used around the world during fog, and had begun implementing some of them.

Police patrols are now sent out to help motorists form convoys, and electronic message signs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi warn motorists when there is fog ahead. Some 40 portable electronic signs have been added to Abu Dhabi's highways alone. Col Hussein al Harethi, the head of Abu Dhabi Police's traffic section, said the signs were introduced late last year. Messages ask drivers to slow down, tell them about detours, accidents ahead and provide other safety tips.

When patrols report bad road conditions, staff at a central police operation room can send pre-scripted warning messages from a digital library to the signs, which are moved to appropriate locations by staff from the Department of Transport. "The advantage of these signs is that they are wireless and can be moved easily to locations in need," Col al Harethi said. In the long run, officials were developing an intelligent transport system that would provide up-to-date information about road conditions to authorities and motorists, Brig Gen al Zaabi said. A study by UAE University in Al Ain into implementing a system that involves all the emirates' traffic and transport departments had been submitted to the Cabinet, he added.

Abu Dhabi is working on its own early fog warning system that would monitor weather through a series of roadside sensors. Staff in a central operations room will be able to post information on a network of roadside signs, such as a new speed limit over several kilometres of road. Speed cameras would enforce the system, which was first mooted by the Department of Transport last year. The department said at the time that such a system was about five years away from being implemented. In Dubai, the municipality announced plans to install climate monitoring stations with early fog detectors.

The changes will not come soon enough for Matt Seirfert, 28, from Germany, who was caught up in the 200 car pile-up on his daily commute to work. He walked away from the crash but has decided to buy a 4x4. Last year, he moved to Dubai, a decision he said was influenced by a fear that he would be involved in a crash while commuting. "I moved to Dubai because I didn't want to drive anymore," he said. "I had no interest in driving that distance every day or taking the risk. The more you drive, there's more risk."

He was not surprised by news of the 20-car pile-up. "It is a sort of a phenomenon around here. We still have people on the roads who can't drive and are overwhelmed by a situation like this." Other concerned motorists said yesterday that they noticed little change in driver behaviour on the main stretch of highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi where the Ghantoot accident occurred. Cheryl Shuttle, 47, from Toronto, who commutes from Dubai to Mussafah, said: "Nothing has changed. I fear for my life every single day.

"It is not just about the fog. It is about people being sensible, and if you don't know how to drive sensibly you are not going to drive sensibly, fog or no fog." * The National with additional reporting from Wasfa Issa