Legal driving age to stay at 18

ABU DHABI // After months of discussion and study, UAE traffic officials have made a decision on the minimum driving age: it will stay the same. "The current legal age, 18, is the most ideal for us," Brig Gen Ghaith al Zaabi, head of traffic at the Ministry of Interior, said yesterday after a workshop on the perfect age for driving.

Experts from the European Association for Driving Schools presented an overview of Germany's experience in decreasing the driving age from 18 to 17. During the first year, the driver can be behind the wheel only with an officially assigned companion, who must be 30 or older. "Usually that companion is the parent or grandparent of the driver, so they will remind the driver to be careful and not take risks," said Gerhard von Bressensdorf, president of the European association.

But an officer from Abu Dhabi traffic police argued that having an accompanied driver actually increases the number of casualties. "You said European studies have found that young drivers are more prone to accidents, so when you say the driver should only drive with a companion, you are increasing the number of casualties - you'll have two deaths instead of one," the officer said. Mr von Bressensdorf noted that accompanied drivers rarely get into wrecks: "For two years after carrying out the pilot project, we did not have any major accidents with accompanied drivers."

While research showed that having an accompanied driver teaches novices to drive safely, officials here said the system would not be applicable in the UAE, because parents might not have the time to spend hours on the road teaching their children and it might be difficult for police to enforce the law. "If there is no compliance we will only end up having younger drivers on the road and more crash risks," said Nick Sanders, a training specialist at the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai.

Similarly, increasing the driving age to more than 18 would be inconvenient, because that is the age when people begin university or start work, experts said. A lack of public transportation also makes that impractical. "Instead, the focus should be on better training," Mr Sanders said. "In Dubai, for example, we will be introducing videos in training to show students possible hazardous situations and role models of safe driving, since there is a lack of this on the road here, and videos of poor driving and its consequences."

Bassam Anani, a safety expert at the UN's Department of Transport, said changing the minimum age is not a solution. He said, instead, there should be stricter penalties for novice or reckless drivers, so they will feel they are always being watched and followed. Johnathan Kelly, 15, a Scottish student at the British School in Abu Dhabi, said the driving age should stay at 18 because people his age did not like the idea of a companion driver and would not stick to it. But his Polish classmate Kris Rzepczynski, also 15, said the age should be lowered because "the younger you start, the more experience you have".

Last year the Ministry of Interior hired the UK-based company Transport Research Laboratory to conduct a series of studies on reclassifying the UAE licensing system, including adding categories and revising training and testing methods. The results are in and are being translated into Arabic, Col al Zaabi said.

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