'Speeding towards an early grave'

Motorists need to be made aware of the impact a fatal crash can have as well as learning to take safety seriously, say experts.

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ABU DHABI // The deaths of three young sisters on Airport Road last week should act as a wake-up call to improve road safety, an expert on traffic accidents said yesterday. "It has to be an example," said Mohammed el Sadig, a researcher at UAE University in Al Ain who has conducted studies on road crashes. "We have to use really any possible means of convincing the population to cool the speed they drive with and see if that will reflect really positively on the roads."

Such incidents should not be allowed to die with the victims, he added. Mr el Sadig was one of a number of experts from the UAE and abroad asked to identify road safety issues as part of The National's "Road to Safety" campaign, which was prompted by the deaths of the sisters, aged four, six and seven, on Monday in an accident involving what officials said was a speeding car. The experts called for drivers to be educated about the result of car crashes, and for roads to be designed to protect pedestrians better.

Deaths and injuries could also be reduced by cutting drivers' speed and increasing the number of people wearing seat belts, they said. Parents should strap children into child safety seats and motorists avoid mobile phone conversations when driving. Irresponsible behaviour and a lack of respect for other road users accounts for nearly 23 per cent of traffic crashes in the capital, according to Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD), which last month launched its own road safety campaign, "Drive Safe - Save Lives".

Mr el Sadig said that while getting people to behave better behind the wheel was paramount, it would not be easy. Many factors - including culture and education - were involved. However, getting motorists to understand that driving a vehicle is a complex task requiring attentiveness was very important. "I think people really don't understand that driving is tough. Using motor vehicles poses a lot of risk."

Crashes were actually rare and "99 per cent of the population do not really know what happens during one," Mr el Sadig said. "It is harsh." With reports showing that the UAE has one of the highest rates of road deaths, various authorities are ramping up efforts to reduce the toll. Last year, 1,071 people died on the roads and 12,273 were injured. Organisations including Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, the National Transport Authority, the Ministry of Interior's traffic department and local police forces, as well as corporate partners, are all working to make things safer.

An example of this co-ordination is the Salama Road Safety Public Awareness Initiative, involving several private companies, non-governmental organisations and government departments. It highlights the dangers of reckless driving, especifically among young Emiratis. Normand Labbe, the managing director of the Emirates Institute for Health and Safety, said he believed further co-ordination, linking the three Es of road safety - engineering, education and enforcement - would go some way towards improving safety on the roads.

"The good part is, there are people in organisations trying to create positive change, mobilised by the fact there are statistics to show we have one of the highest road fatality rates," he said. Today The National takes a closer look at the issues experts see as priorities in improving road safety.

This is the biggest factor in traffic accidents, according to Waseen Iqbal, a senior lecturer and assessment examiner at the Emirates Driving Institute in Dubai. Statistics from Abu Dhabi police back him up. In spite of increased penalties for breaking the speed limit, a total of 138,919 motorists were caught driving excessively fast in Abu Dhabi between January 1 and April 5 this year, representing 56 per cent of traffic cases. "Most of the time, this is a big factor in Dubai," Mr Iqbal said. "Youngsters are in very powerful vehicles and getting into huge accidents." Young men in particular tend to speed excessively and die in cars. According to HAAD figures for 2007, 89 per cent of those who died were male.

Mr Iqbal noted that the severity of injuries increases exponentially with vehicle speed. High speeds in urban areas also contributed to the large number of motorists jumping red lights, which has been identified by Abu Dhabi police as the second biggest cause of crashes. Mr Iqbal said he told his students they should abide by the speed limits and leave a two-second following distance from the vehicle ahead, which should leave room for an emergency stop without a collision.

To get people to slow down, Mr Iqbal recommended even tougher penalties for speeding and more radar enforcement and demonstrations of the impact of car crashes at high speeds. Mr el Sadig recommended introducing speed humps and other traffic calming measures in busy areas, and lowering speed limits. "I don't see any reason why the speed inside our towns needs to be anything beyond 50kph at maximum," he said. Tami Toroyan, a World Health Organisation technical officer, recommended the same reduction in the speed limit when presenting the WHO's Global Status Report on Road Safety last month.

Seat belt compliance in the UAE is poor and too few children are properly restrained in vehicles, authorities have said. For instance, in Abu Dhabi only 11 per cent of Emiratis and 44 per cent of expatriates wear seat belts, according to the HAAD.

While drivers and front-seat passengers can be fined Dh400 and receive four black points for not wearing a seat belt, under the federal traffic law there is no requirement for passengers in the rear to buckle up. Similarly, while children under 10 years of age may not ride in front, there is no federal law requiring parents to fit children in appropriate restraints on the back seat. The National Transport Authority, however, is considering making child safety restraints compulsory, a move supported by Michael Grivna, a researcher at the UAE University in Al Ain who has conducted studies into child injuries.

"In a traffic crash, if a child is not restrained it could be like a bullet," he said. "The child could even kill someone in the front seat." Alia Salik, from Right to Live, a non-profit group promoting child safety in transport in the UAE and Middle East, said that barriers to a federal law included finding solutions for low-income families who might find an appropriate restraining system such as a car seat prohibitively expensive.

However, her group wanted to see such a law in the UAE, she said. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, properly installed child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injuries by 71 per cent for infants and 54 per cent for toddlers. The National Transport Authority has teamed up with Safe Kids Worldwide, Chevrolet and Unicef to launch a 10-year programme to encourage parents to strap children into seats in the back of the car.

In the UK, children up to the age of 12 or up to 135cm tall must travel in the correct child restraint, whether that is a child seat or a booster cushion that ensures a seat belt is fitted properly. Doug Hayward, a traffic expert from the UK who is advising Abu Dhabi's police on ways to reduce accidents, said one thing he would like to see changed was a law making seat belts compulsory both in the front and the back.

However, getting drivers to comply would take a sustained effort, said Richard Cuerden, the programme developer manager at the Transport Research Laboratory in the UK. Even in Britain, where there had been concerted efforts to improve seat belt use since it was made mandatory for front-seat users in 1983, Mr Cuerden said five per cent of people were still not bothering with them, and 30 per cent of drivers and front passengers who died in accidents were not using a seat belt.

Since 1991, passengers in the back seat in Britain have also had to wear seat belts. Mr Cuerden said buckling up in both the front and back seats was important because while passengers in the back might feel protected by the seats ahead of them, a crash can be over in an instant. "If you crash head on at 50kph you can't stop yourself," he said. "The car will stop and you will be continuing at 50kph."

The penalty for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving is Dh200 and four black points, yet motorists continue to conduct phone conversations as they drive. Dubai Police issued 2,005 fines for the offence in January and February, compared with 2,552 last year when the monthly average was 212. In Abu Dhabi, police handed out 2,158 nes between January 1 and March 12 this year. A theme during Gulf Traffic Week last month was "Don't call until you arrive".

Mr Iqbal said driving while talking on the phone was one of the main causes of accidents in Dubai. "The main thing is the concentration," he said. "You get a ring on the mobile and you are taking a call, you are losing your concentration." Studies show that talking on a mobile phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, makes a driver four times more likely to be involved in an accident. Other studies conducted in a driving simulator at Britain's Transport Research Laboratory found that people's reaction times are slowed and driver's eyes become fixed on the road ahead.

People driving and talking also had a harder time maintaining position in their driving lane. It is more distracting than listening to the radio or chatting with a passenger because passengers can see the road conditions and moderate their conversation accordingly, said Nick Reed, a human factors researcher at the laboratory.

While the car is king in the UAE, every journey begins and ends on foot, which is why more needs to be done to protect people when they are out of their vehicles, according to Mr el Sadig, from the UAE University. "We have to remember that we built our towns to live in and we built our towns for our kids, not for drivers to use it for racing," he said. "We have to remember that half of the population are vulnerable road users, including kids and women. "Most of the times we are also pedestrians. So what I am saying is for our own safety, we shouldn't be really selfish at the moment we drive." There were 26 pedestrians killed crossing Abu Dhabi's roads in the first 71 days of this year, while 117 were injured. In Dubai, 24 were killed.

Last year 663 pedestrians in Abu Dhabi were struck by cars, up from 583 in 2007. Dubai saw the most pedestrian/vehicle incidents, with 754 compared with 665 the year before. Across the country, there were 2,138 such accidents, compared with 2,022 the year before. Children make up a significant portion of the total run-over deaths. In Abu Dhabi, 1,112 died after being struck by vehicles between 2001 and 2007.

Unpublished research by Mr el Sadig into crashes in Al Ain involving vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, shows that group accounted for 20 per cent of deaths and injuries. Town planning that gives preference to vehicle mobility over safety, combined with a lack of safe routes and crossings for pedestrian and cyclists, increased pedestrians' exposure to accidents, he said.

"The way forward is to modify the town planning, to connect it to the public transportation," he said. "Also, we need more attention to be paid to build safe crossings at junctions." Danish studies showed that providing segregated bicycle tracks or lanes alongside urban roads cut deaths among cyclists by 35 per cent. mchung@thenational.ae