This is a true story: a man, driving along at a steady 80kph, was nibbling away on a Kit Kat. He dropped a bit and, eager not to get chocolate all over his business suit, glanced down to pick it up. His car hit the barrier of a bridge, rolled over and stopped dead. His laptop flew off the back seat, severing his spinal column. He woke up in hospital two days later permanently paralysed from the waist down.
Now, think about how we drive in Dubai. Do we ever tootle along at a mere 80kph? If you’re not eating chocolate are you perhaps chatting on your mobile phone or texting? Maybe there’s no laptop on your backseat, but is there an unrestrained child instead? (It’s staggering how many people are seriously injured or even killed in accidents when whacked by an unrestrained passenger in their own vehicle.) The potential for damage, injury and death on Dubai’s roads – for both kids and adults – is unimaginably horrific.
We’re not trying to scaremonger. We just want you to know the facts because, as parents, some of the driving ‘techniques’ we witness on our roads leave us cold. The speeding, the tailgating and the erratic lane changes keep us awake at night – and that’s before we get started on the lack of child restraints (see our plea to buckle up in April’s issue).
‘The main causes of death on Dubai’s roads include speeding, sudden change of lanes, lack of concentration due to the use of mobile phones, jumping a red signal and fatigue,’ says Peyman Younes Parham, director of marketing and corporate communications at Dubai’s Road Transport Authority (RTA).
Shockingly, experts estimate that there’s a road accident in Dubai every two minutes. ‘I’m amazed by the lack of care and respect on the road,’ says Robert Hodges, development manager at Emirates Driving Institute.
Believe it or not, there are rules in place to make sure we drive safely (see ‘Take Care’, right), but these are, given the blatant flouting we see every day, extremely difficult to enforce. Speed limits are a prime example. They’re clearly marked and many of us drive cars that beep if we go over the maximum 120kph, but to look around, we seem to be sharing the asphault with wannabe Lewis Hamiltons. This is bad news: not only are we more likely to have an accident (vehicles operate very differently at 150kph to how they do at 50kph), but we’re more likely to die or suffer serious injury.
‘If you could see what happens in a high-speed accident, you would never, ever speed again,’ says Hodges, who has more than 30 years’ experience, is the only certified driving risk analyst in the Gulf and, by his own admission, is ‘passionate’ about road safety. ‘It’s not just people lying on the road bleeding. There are body parts all over – bits and pieces that used to be human beings.’
Then, of course, there’s the popular Dubai sport of tailgating. Yes, the pace of life here is frenetic, and apparently Dubai folk are three times more stressed than others elsewhere in the UAE. That translates into impatience and dubious driving as we dash from one appointment to another, and woe betide the poor speed-limit-stickler who gets in our way.
Hodges recommends keeping at least a two-second gap, preferably a four-second gap, between vehicles to give you enough time to see a problem ahead, react and take appropriate action. If you’re too close to the car in front, then you’re likely to panic-brake, increasing the chances of that ghastly crunch of metal on metal as the cars behind you fail to react.
Yet, unlike in other areas of the world, where the most common accident is the tailgate shunt, here in the Gulf, most collisions are of the ‘side swipe’ variety, where cars collide either by pulling out when it’s unsafe or changing lanes too quickly or without proper care. Even at moderate speeds, Hodges says, this sort of collision is extremely dangerous, causing your vehicle to spin and possibly roll. In fact, police in the United States and special forces in the UK use the side swipe to nudge cars off the road. ‘It’s a killer move,’ he says.
Naturally, all these hazards are dangerous enough if our attention is 100 per cent on the road, but when you add phone conversations, texting and tiredness to the mix, the probability of a serious collision skyrockets.
Studies by the UK’s Loughborough University show that even using a hands-free telephone in the car, you’re four times more likely to have an accident. For the duration of the call and for 20 minutes afterwards (because, whether you’re arranging a night out or getting ticked off by your boss, that conversation will be in your thoughts for at least that long), you’re as poor a driver as if you had been drinking alcohol. And if you’re nattering away without hands-free, then ramp that up to 20 to 25 times more likely to have an accident.
At Rashid hospital, Dubai’s main centre for severe trauma cases, they treat around 600 children a month. There are no official figures on how many of these seriously hurt kids have been involved in road accidents, but it’s more than just a handful.
‘Unfortunately, the thing is that if little people are not restrained in a car, they become like human missiles and they go head first into the dashboard, head first into the seats in front, or head first through the windscreen,’ says Jane Griffiths, Rashid hospital’s director of nursing.
According to the Ministry of Health, traffic collisions are the number one cause of child deaths in the UAE. More than 600,000 kids under 14 were involved in road smashes between 2001 and 2007, and 470 died.
The sights Griffiths and her colleagues witness – those kids who are ‘lucky’ enough to make it to hospital – are surely enough to make any parent think twice about driving dangerously or not strapping their kids in.
‘Most injuries we see from accidents include long bone injuries, horrible cuts from the windscreen, severe facial fractures, broken bones in the face, depressed skull fractures, bleeding in the brain or bleeding in the abdomen,’ Griffiths says matter-of-factly. Some of these children are so badly injured they head straight to the surgical intensive care unit where they are cared for by nurses like Rhoda Abdi.
‘We see severe head injuries, cervical spine injuries and spleen and liver tears,’ she says. ‘To be in intensive care there has to be more than one body system failure, so these kids are usually unconscious, supported by medication.’ While there are no official hospital figures, Abdi believes the vast majority of child patients she treats are victims of road traffic accidents.
‘Most of these accidents are preventable by following simple safety measures, such as being strapped into a car seat,’ she says, visibly frustrated.
Abdi has some horrific stories to tell, such as the baby who was thrown out of a car and had to have part of his brain removed, and kids that are squashed between their mum and the dashboard or backseat when their car is involved in an accident. Unfortunately, these are routine occurrences that Abdi, Griffiths and colleagues are trained to treat – but it’s not easy.
‘You have to stay focused on treating the child, but consoling the family is often one of the most difficult tasks, especially when there’s guilt involved,’ Abdi says. ‘I think there’s a very relaxed attitude to road traffic accidents and child involvement. Few people see children in ICUs but when they do, they’re horrified.’
So the message from us at Time Out Kids this month is, once again, buckle yourself and your kids up every time you get in a car. If you’re in an accident, it will probably save their lives. But let’s avoid accidents in the first place by being responsible for our own safety and that of our family when in the car.
‘Whether you like it or not, driving is a team sport,’ says Hodges. ‘You have to consider other people. By taking responsibility for your own safety, you’re also helping the people around you to keep safe.’
Just so you know, the RTA is clamping down on dangerous, reckless and downright dodgy driving with its ‘Take Care’ campaign, which aims to slash serious injuries and fatalities on the roads by 40 per cent by 2015. ‘Raising awareness on safety is an ongoing exercise as, although people are aware of the perils of dangerous driving, they need to be reminded constantly,’ says the RTA’s Peyman Younes Parham. And be warned – get caught flouting the rules of the road and there are penalties.
For defensive, advanced or refresher driving courses, or for info about the road safety talks for kids, call Emirates Driving Institute on 04 263 1100 or visit www.edi-uae.com