Tailgating, speeding, aggressive overtaking – all these and more were captured by Y on video on one car journey in Muscat. Are we too readily accepting of bad driving and a lack of consideration on the roads and is enough being done to stop it? Kate Ginn and Tom Robertson investigate
As a white SUV bears down from behind, headlights flashing in a fury, another car swerves dangerously across lanes in front without indicating as traffic streams past. Another saloon car weaves at speed in and out of the vehicles, with just millimetres to spare. A wrong move or misjudgement and you are looking at a serious crash with potentially devastating consequences.
This scenario, or one similar, is played out on Muscat’s busy roads every day. Anyone who commutes regularly will be all too familiar with this race-track mentality, which has given Oman the dubious honour of having the highest death rate from road accidents in the GCC and the third highest in the whole Eastern Mediterranean region. In fact, it was recently revealed by the National Center for Statistics and Information (NCSI) that 12 per cent of road accidents in Oman result in deaths.
So Y set out to do an experiment and decided to record a typical journey on the capital’s busiest road, the Sultan Qaboos Highway. What we caught on video was shocking.
From tailgating at high speed and talking and texting on mobile phones while driving, to reversing down a slip road, we saw it all. In a journey lasting less than two hours, we witnessed dozens of traffic violations from simple speeding to drivers not wearing a seatbelt.
Most alarming of all is that this behaviour has apparently become an accepted part of the country’s culture, inherently part of the driving psyche. It’s become the norm to the extent that there’s a sense of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude on the roads.
“The biggest concern is that we, as a society, tolerate high-risk driving behaviour even among members of our own family and caretaker drivers,” says Bernadette Bhacker-Millard, an Omani lawyer and co-founder of Sustainability, an Oman social entrepreneurship company campaigning in road safety.
We’ve become accustomed to having to be on tenterhooks on every journey, constantly checking the rear view and side view mirrors for potential trouble. As the saying goes, though, it doesn’t matter how well you drive, it’s the person behind or in front or at the side of you who really matters.
From aggressive bullying tactics to simply a lack of road awareness, the list is seemingly endless.
Yet, despite the grim statistics fom the NCSI that one in every ten accidents results in a death, it doesn’t seem to deter bad behaviour on the roads.
Nor do the unpalatable figures that 6,600 road accidents were recorded in 11 months last year, up to November 2013. 832 people died and 9,081 were injured, to varying degrees. Admittedly, it was better than the year before when there were 7,529 accidents with over 1,000 deaths and 10,700 injuries.
Less surprising is that most road accident victims are male, over 85 per cent. Over a quarter of deaths are of drivers of 4WDs.
It’s not just drivers who are at risk either.
According to the World Health Organisation – which claims that Oman has among the worst road fatality record in the world – 23 per cent of those dying in traffic accidents in the Sultanate are pedestrians.
Shaima Murtadha Al Lawati, chief executive officer of Oman Road Safety Association (ORSA), which works to educate drivers on good traffic etiquette, admits it is a big problem.
“Every day when I drive to work in the morning I count how many cars I pass by with drivers not obeying traffic rules and on average I find eight out of 10 not obeying, for instance by not wearing the seatbelt or using mobile phones while driving.
“I feel sad because they think they are smart by doing so and in fact they are increasing their probability of getting killed on roads by such careless acts.”
Y did a further experiment; recording on a daily basis for a week, incidences of traffic offences that we saw on the roads while on our usual commutes.
On average, more than 20 people a day were illegally using mobile phones, whether to talk or text. On several occasions, the distracted drivers were swerving out of their lanes, oblivious to the danger to other cars. One man had his smartphone balanced on the steering wheel, as he tapped on the screen, barely glancing at the road ahead.
Speeding is a regular occurrence, with dozens of cars failing to stick to the speed limits on the road, even with the deterrent of speed cameras.
We saw drivers with unrestrained children jumping on the passenger seat or even hanging out of open windows.
Compounding this is the high proportion of drivers who exhibit dangerous driving habits with undercurrents of aggression. In the wrong hands, a car can be a potentially lethal weapon.
Slide on to a busy slip road and the likelihood is that someone has pulled over in a potentially dangerous position, causing cars to swerve round.
If you manage to find your way out into the masses there’s every chance you’ll be trying to avoid the car going slowly in the middle lane, while the driver concentrates on texting his best friend. Make your way into the inner most overtaking lane (note: not ‘fast lane’) and you’d better be prepared to break the speed limit. Stick to the 120km/h there and it won’t be long before there’s a two- ton Land Cruiser bearing down, leaving nothing but a few inches between bumpers. Headlights will flashed in a demand to be let through.
It’ s not much better in the ‘slow’ right hand lane, either. Stick there and you’ll be dodging the taxis and mini buses randomly pulling out into your path without warning.
Al Lawati blames several factors for bad driver behaviour, including a lack of knowledge or information about consequences.
“People know they need to wear a seatbelt but they don’t know what will happen if they don’t wear it. They need to know that almost 40 per cent get thrown out of the car in the case of a crash if not wearing a seatbelt and get killed,” she says.
Young drivers are also an issue. A large percentage of drivers in Oman are aged between 18-30 years old, in some cases driving high-powered or customised cars, with less experience on the roads.
“There is no easy fix or magic bullet to reduce road crash fatalities,” says Bernadette Bhacker-Millard. “The most effective interventions are setting and enforcing speed limits, comprehensive laws on seatbelts and child safety seats, rigourous driver and driver instructor testing standards and tackling distracted and impaired driving.”
The Royal Oman Police are stepping up their efforts – increasing traffic patrols and mobile radars. In one weekend last December, a staggering 14,554 traffic offences were registered in the Sultanate.
There is also talk of introducing a ‘black points’ system, similar to the UAE, given out for traffic offences. Any driver with 12 black points would have his licence revoked for a set period.
A spokesman for the ROP told Y that the proposed black points system had yet to be introduced but said: “Punishments are tough with drivers facing having their cars taken away and being put in prison for up to 48 hours for offences, such as jumping a red light.”
More needs to be done, however. Safety experts advocate, among other suggestions, sustained road safety awareness, through schools upwards, more enforcement of existing laws and enhancing use of smart technology, such as traffic flow systems.
As al Lawati says, “We cannot expect people to change themselves.”
Change won’t occur overnight, either. It will take a concerted effort from all parties – from the ROP and safety groups, to the Ministry of Transport & Communications and regional municipalities – to make it happen.
Ultimately, of course, it is down to the drivers to put the brakes on wrong behaviour for good.
In the words of Shaima Murtadha al Lawati from ORSA: “We can’t fully change the current situation without people starting to work on their bad driving habits and playing an active role in keep themselves safe on roads.”
Under Oman’s Traffic Law, the Highway (Traffic) Code sets out offences and punishments, which can be enforced. These include:
Armed with a video camera, Y staff drove from our office in Seeb to Qurum and back on a Wednesday afternoon, setting off around 1.30pm. We were travelling in an ordinary saloon car.
Even at low speeds on the beach road at Seeb, drivers have to be alert. As we move into the traffic, cars are pulling out in front without indicating and turning without warning. We see lots of young children travelling unrestrained in cars – in one case while their father talked on his mobile phone as he drove.
By the time we reach the Sultan Qaboos Highway, our nerves are already shredded. It’s a mad scramble to get off the slip road with cars overtaking frantically. Cars sweep past us, clearly breaking the speed limit, while others criss cross lanes without any attempt to indicate or warn other drivers of what they are about to do. A blue GMC Yukon 4×4 darts out of the slow lane and veers into our path, forcing us to brake suddenly.
Meanwhile, a taxi lurches off the shoulder, where it has been picking up a passenger, in front of another car, forcing it to veer into the middle lane dangerously close to another vehicle. A simple use of the indicator from the taxi driver – and checking the road is clear before pulling out – would have prevented all this.
Three out of every four cars pouring off the slip road into fast-flowing traffic make no attempt to indicate.
Approaching the Azaiba turn-off, a white car steams up behind us in the ‘fast’ lane, tailgating and demanding a way through. We are maintaining the legal speed limit for this part of the road, 120km/h, but it’s clearly not enough for the driver behind. Near Madinat Qaboos, a car driven by a young guy shoots across all three lanes, darting in and out of traffic, to get past ‘slow’ drivers in his path. Lane crossing is common, as is speeding, undertaking, tailgating and dangerous overtaking. In one of the worst instances, we see a Toyota Hilux pick-up reversing up the hard shoulder and slip road into oncoming traffic after missing the turning. During the two-hour journey, we see countless traffic offences and cases of dangerous driving.
By the end, we just feel thankful to have made it back in one piece.