ANALYSIS: How the UAE is trying to reduce road deaths

Road safety is an ongoing issue for the country.
Driver training at DHL Express UAE being carried out by Matrix International Safety Consultants.
Driver training at DHL Express UAE being carried out by Matrix International Safety Consultants.

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It’s no secret that the habits of some UAE drivers leave a lot to be desired. From harsh acceleration and deceleration, to tailgating and speeding, the UAE showcases it all. Dubai Police’s report of 1,116 traffic accidents, resulting in 88 fatalities, on Dubai’s roads in the first five months of this year comes as little surprise to those using the emirate’s roads.

And while there were fewer accidents so far this year in Abu Dhabi - 971 in the first six months of 2014 - this is only an eight percent drop on the same period as last year, despite escalated efforts made to limit accidents.

The main cause of accidents is easily guessed; according to Dubai Police, about 85 percent of traffic accidents resulting in deaths and/or injuries are caused by people driving too fast. In a bid to curb speeding, Dubai’s Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) is in the process of installing Aman speed sensors across its entire fleet of taxis – over 9,000 vehicles on Dubai’s roads – that issue a ticket if a driver doesn’t respond within 60 seconds to an alert to slow down.

This decision follows the RTA’s successful trial of the sensors last year that lead to the monthly average number of over-speeding fines among Dubai taxi drivers fall from 650 to 200. Abu Dhabi is also cracking down on speeding, having installed nearly 50 new radars in recent months and being in the process of installing a further 32 in a bid to deter drivers from putting their foot down.

Though efforts are being made to reduce speeding, the authorities are having to also consider other aspects of driver behaviour causing problems.

Alan McGuinness, managing director of Matrix International Safety Consultants, which recently worked with DHL Express to provide training to some the logistics company’s workforce in the UAE, said inattention and impatience are also to blame.

“Driver error is 99.9% of the problem,” he commented. “Most drivers do everything but drive, such as reading and sending texts, making and receiving phone calls, and eating their lunch. Even when they think they are concentrating, drivers’ sense of situational and spatial awareness is often very poor and leads to the ‘he came from nowhere’ argument.”

Despite expert opinion and statistics, a survey carried out by the Road and Transport Authority’s (RTA) Traffic and Roads Agency and UAE-based Tristar Transport during Gulf Traffic Week in March, revealed that only 34 percent of heavy truck drivers believed accidents happened due to human error and 24% believed they are an act of God, making them non-preventable.

McGuinness believes driver behaviour needs to be widely discussed so motorists gain more awareness of what is not acceptable, citing anger management as a key issue.

Thomas Edelmann, founder of website Road Safety UAE (www.roadsafetyuae.com), agreed that drivers need an attitude overhaul: “UAE roads are very good, the cars we drive are equally good and the weather is only rarely an excuse for the many accidents in the UAE.

“In our opinion, it is a matter of driving culture causing the situation…we must arrive at a situation of driving ‘with each other’ and not ‘against each other’, as we witness on a daily basis. We need to start caring for other traffic participants.”

At the heart of changing people’s attitudes is education and many of those getting behind the wheel in the UAE – a country where a considerable number of residents are expatriates – would benefit from further driver training.

“The challenges are human ones; if you were to ask the average driver to operate a large piece of industrial machinery he/she would do so with great care and concentration but the modern vehicle has desensitised us from the process of driving,” McGuinness said.

“Everything is smoother, faster and quieter. The secret is to reconnect the driver with the process of driving, starting with the human limitations rather than the vehicles capabilities, which far outweigh the capabilities of the human.”

Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at RoSPA (www.rospa.com), the UK-based organisation Tristar Transport recently enlisted to deliver road safety workshops to its workforce, picked up the theme: “Most road accidents have more than one cause, but almost all involve human error, which can be making mistakes, not having sufficient skills or knowledge or deliberately driving badly.

“The most common types of driver error are driver inattention, not looking properly, driving too fast and generally being careless. Education is vital, as this can start to challenge beliefs and attitudes, which neither enforcement nor engineering can manage on their own.

“It is only with a change in beliefs and attitude that effective progress in road safety can be achieved. For all of these to work there also needs to be enthusiasm from the authorities to improve road safety and reduce casualty figures.”

Logistics companies are increasingly viewing education as vital in order to play their part in reducing accidents on the region’s roads, with companies arranging for third-party experts to work with their employees to improve knowledge and understanding of safe driving. Further driving tuition is particularly important for a country like the UAE, as the multicultural population inevitable creates a situation where drivers hold very different beliefs about what is acceptable behaviour behind the wheel.

McGuiness believes “education mixed with visible enforcement” is the key to improving road safety in the UAE.
“You are as good as what you implement and that has to be visible,” he said.

Edelmann concurred: “Drivers must be aware of proper conduct on our roads, and they must be permanently reminded about it – a permanent and holistic awareness for road safety will change the driving culture.

“The existing rules and laws are good and they are constantly reviewed, however the enforcement of rules and laws must be stringent. Traffic participants must have the perception they do not get away with misbehaviour; enforcement is key in changing the current poor driving culture.”

In this respect, the authorities are adding to the existing deterrents with new sanctions for offenders, perhaps
in light of the fact more than a million traffic offences were committing in Dubai in the first five months of 2014, according to Dubai Police.

The UAE Federal Traffic Council is mulling the introduction of up to 240 hours of community service as an alternative punishment for overtaking by heavy trucks, racing, tinting window glasses over the allowed limit, driving without a licence, reckless driving and exceeding the speed limit by 60kmph.

Dubai Police assistant commander-in-chief for operations, Major-General Mohammed Saif Al Zafin, reportedly said this punishment is to target arrogant drivers who commit serious violations.

There is also talk of changing the minimum speed of 60kph on the UAE’s highways, with Al Zafeen reasoning that this limit should be increased or scrapped altogether to reduce the gap in speed between vehicles.

Asserting that the difference between 60kph and 120kph is not safe for motorists, he said: “Imagine you drive at 140kph and you find someone in front of you driving at 60kph. It will cause accidents and casualties.”

If existing and new sanctions do not sufficiently improve road safety, financial incentives might be an effective method. It stands to reason that the number of accidents and violations will come down when a driver is hit in his or her pocket after a crash. Qatar is the first country in the region to consider this as a new way of boosting road safety, having recently unveiled an insurance model that rewards law-abiding motorists with discounts on premiums using telematics.

The telematic devices collect data to evaluate key driving habits of motorists, including harsh acceleration and speeding, with the aim of making a significant positive difference in road safety and driving behaviour. New GCC regulations requiring transport companies to equip their vehicles with these devices, to monitor speed and traffic violations, will also reportedly soon become a reality.

Clinton said the use of telematics to monitor how vehicles are being driven can be very effective and research has indicated this technology can significantly reduce risky behaviours, especially among the most risk-prone young drivers, and among people for who drive for work purposes.

“In the United Kingdom [where RoSPA is based], drivers who do not make insurance claims receive discounts on the
cost of their motor insurance, which acts as a reward and an incentive not to have an accident,” he said.

“Many motor insurers in recent years have introduced telematics insurance for young drivers, which incentivises them to reduce their crash risk by offering discounts to those who improve their driving, but they also penalise poor driving by not giving these discounts to drivers who do not improve, or by sending warnings or even withdrawing insurance cover.”

McGuiness agreed that the model “has a very good track record in the rest of the world” and felt that “Dubai is ready for such a move”.

He added: “IVMS (in vehicle monitoring systems) have been in the corporate world for many years now and show positive results but like most data based systems they are as good as what you do with the data you collect, and how it is interpreted.”

Edelmann echoed these sentiments, stating: “All possibilities must be considered and equipment fitted in vehicles to monitor driver behaviour can play a vital role. However, it will take a thorough process of due diligence to identify which equipment will make sense for which type of vehicle and learning can be drawn from equipment already in use by taxi operators, fleet operators, bus and school bus operators, and so forth.

“It will be vital to include best practice and experiences of stakeholders who already have experience in formulating proper regulations.”

With the Expo2020 on the way for Dubai and the headline-hitting 2022 World Cup taking place in neighbouring Qatar, the entire region is going to be under the spotlight and the frequency of news reports surrounding road safety are a sign that this topic is being taken very seriously by the authorities.

McGuiness argued that Dubai has “moved leaps and bounds” in terms of road safety since he moved there in 2000, stating that the driving environment is “unrecognisable” now compared with how it was at the turn of the century.

“Dubai has made great progress in all areas in the last decade. Having worked with the authorities in the past, as DAST safety committee chairman, I am confident that there is a genuine will and desire to improve still further and that, mixed with the ongoing multi modal transport infrastructure, bodes very well for the future.”

The fact that the number of traffic accidents in some of the emirates is reducing indicates the country is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately though, statistics released by Dubai Police show that fatalities in Dubai have increased. At the time of going to press, figures for July 2014 were unavailable but already the statistics compare poorly with those for previous years; 82 people died in road accidents in the first six months of 2013 and 49 people were killed in the first six months of 2012. One month short of a fair comparison and the death toll in Dubai is already at 88.

Mitigating factors must be considered and there are more cars on the road in Dubai with each passing year; a contributory factor in rising figures. As of December 2013, the number of vehicles registered in Dubai was 1,240,931, up from 1,137,748 during the same period in 2012.

More road deaths correlating to more cars on the road does not have to be a trend that continues however, as Clinton pointed out: “Experience from many countries around the world, including the UK, shows that road casualties are not inevitable.

“They can be reduced and prevented, even when the level of traffic is increasing, but to do so, requires planning and action, and the development and implementation of a wide-ranging road safety strategy.

“The number of deaths and injuries on Great Britain’s roads has fallen substantially from around 5,500 deaths, and 75,000 serious injuries a year in the mid-1980s to 1,713 deaths and 21,657 serious injuries in 2013. There are many reasons for this, including much safer vehicles.”

Countries like the UK have employed various tactics for reducing serious accidents, including tough sanctions, stringent driving examinations - including the addition of a hazard perception test in 2002 - and road engineering, the latter of which Clinton said could be “used to great effect in controlling driver behaviour at locations or helping drivers to drive at safe speeds, and is often targeted where there is a history of collisions”.

Given the multitude of factors involved, improving road safety in the UAE boils down to a combination of tactics, as Clinton advised: “The best approach is to develop a comprehensive road safety strategy that is based on road casualty data so it targets the most important issues first. The strategy should include road safety education, engineering (roads and vehicles) and enforcement, and it should be constantly monitored so it can be adapted as circumstances changes.

“Setting casualty reduction targets also helps to focus attention. A good strategy will involve many different partners working together, including central and local government, the police, employers, safety organisations, vehicle manufacturers and the public.”  

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