Monday, January 24, 2005

The Joy of Driving in Dubai

I've touched on this topic before, but I have a few more observations to make.

It was reported recently that the third most frequent cause of death for UAE national males (ie those who were born and raised here, as opposed to expats) under the age of 40 is Road Traffic Accidents. This is pretty shocking, and the general death / injury rate for UAE nationals far outstrips those of any other nationality in this country. And the reason? They have very fast cars and they drive them like maniacs. That's a horrible generalisation, but it is rare for me to drive on ant highway for half an hour without seeing 2 or 3 guys with black windows doing high-speed lane-weaving.

Black windows? You can get stick-on tints for your car that reduce your visibility by anything up to 90%. The locals absolutely love this idea, they say it protects the privacy of ladies inside the car, and stops it getting too hot inside if it's parked in the sun. A year or two ago, the authorities realised that it probably isn't very safe for people to be unable to see what's happening outside their vehicle, so they imposed a ban on tints of more than 30%. But what happens is that the Police never stop anyone because their windows look a bit dark, and the only time they really get checked is when you do your annual car registration. So before you go for that you strip off the tint film, and as soon as your vehicle has passed the test you go back to Satwa and they apply a fresh set of films. And it costs almost nothing.

The most dangerous stretch of road in the entire UAE is the Sheikh Zayed Highway in Dubai. This connects Dubai to Abu Dhabi, and is currently having all of its old roundabout junctions replaced by massive interchanges. At any one time for the last three years there have been at least two interchanges being built, so the road is in a permanent state of roadworkery, diversions, etc. In the course of building these interchanges, the road is also being widened from 3 or 4 lanes in each direction to 6. The road itself is not inherently dangerous - it is well-maintained and almost perfectly straight. But this leads some young fools to think that it is actually some kind of racetrack. And they are not remotely bothered by the dozens of speed cameras that litter the central divide.

Another hazard on the highway are people who tootle along in the third lane at 92 kph. The speed limit on the highways is 120 kilometers per hour for normal vehicles. But the inside two lanes also carry a sign that indicates trucks may use these lanes (not any of the others), and may not go faster than 80 kph. Now, some idiots of this parish interpret that to mean that cars are not allowed to use the inside two lanes. These particular idiots also suffer from over-cautiousness, so they never drive at anything like the speed limit. The result is that you will encounter these people driving dangerously slowly in the third lane. You can flash your lights at them, but they will not move because they think they are right and you know they're wrong. Having finally managed to get around them you look in your rear-view mirror and notice that they have been rammed by a boy-racer doing 200 kph - the boy-racer is ok, the other guy is roadkill.

There was a recent flurry of letters in Gulf News recently wondering if there is actually a law against overtaking on the inside. There were plenty of replies, all of them sarcastic, but none actually answering the question. This is a shame, because I would really like to know what the answer is. The problem is that there does not seem to be much in the way of actual rules about driving, and nothing like the British Highway Code. As a British driving licence holder (in common with most of Europe and North America), when I came here all I had to do was pass an eye test and pay some money to get a UAE driving licence. Other nationalities (especially Asian and African) have to learn to drive all over again. So I've never had a driving lesson here and therefore I don't know what the instructors would reckon the rules are.

Anyhoo, you have to pass on the inside, otherwise you would never get anywhere.

And a final piece of road madness. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, they have a rule that heavy trucks may only use the inside lane, and may not overtake anything. So in theory this means that if you have a road that is 50 kms long, and there is a truck on it travelling at 10 kph, then every other truck using that road will be forced to travel at the same speed. The truck drivers are very obedient of this rule, but those in very slow vehicles do seem to break down a lot and frequently need to have a little rest on the hard shoulder.