The Royal Oman Police have launched a crackdown on reckless driving with increased patrols and stricter punishments, but is it working? Matt Blackwell, Deeba Hasan and Kate Ginn report
Ahmed ran a red light in a rush to get to work one recent morning. Instead of going home to his family that night, he had the rather less comfortable surroundings of a stark jail cell to look forward to. Meanwhile, Mohammed was caught committing the same violation, but with the jail at capacity, he had to return at a later date to complete his two-day stint behind bars. There have been dozens of similar accounts since officials from the Royal Oman Police (ROP) announced that motorists found jumping a red light would have to serve a jail sentence ranging from 24 to 48 hours, even for a first-time offence. It may seem somewhat draconian, but several experts are unanimous in their belief that harsher penalties are the only way to get the attention of road users in Oman and force them to alter bad driving habits. If drivers were expecting an easier ride in the future, they’re very much mistaken. In October this year, the ROP revealed a set of proposed amendments to Article 50 of the traffic law, which saw it triple fines for the worst offenders as well as introduce longer jail terms.
There has been a noticeably increased police presence on Muscat’s major roads, such as the Sultan Qaboos Highway, in recent months and it certainly appears that random checks and on-the-spot fines are on the rise. However, considering that official statistics show that 70 people die every month on Oman’s roads from 530 accidents, with speeding, texting while driving and general negligence forming the primary causes, many are asking whether the new measures are having an effect.
Safety First Oman, a non-profit organisation launched in 2012 by former world rally champion Hamed al Wahaibi and professional footballer and Oman national team captain Ali al Habsi, aims to reduce the number of road accidents and fatalities in Oman by 50 per cent by the year 2020. The organisation would appear to favour taking a hard line on misbehaving drivers. Daryle Hardie, Safety First’s CEO, tells Y: “It seems harsher penalties are ‘unfortunately’ the only way forward and may be the only way to change drivers’ behaviour in the short term. Trying to change the attitudes of drivers will take a long time. We fully support the ROP and their noticeable increase of vehicle monitoring and penalty enforcement throughout Oman.”
One third of all accidents are caused by drivers who run red lights and Mr Hardie firmly believes that this is an area that needs extensive targeting. “Globally, the introduction of speed and traffic light monitoring systems, along with the enforcement of heavy penalties has worked. We are not reinventing the wheel in Oman (excuse the pun). Rather, these are tried and tested methods of reducing road accidents and fatalities,” he says.
However, not all speed radars and red light cameras are actually operational, some are merely dummies that have been installed to act as a deterrent. In addition to this, some drivers have found their own way around the new measures, enabling them to “beat” the system.
Charlie Breen, a 25-year-old expat based in Muscat, says: “My drive home from the office takes me around 20 minutes. I know the exact location of the four speed cameras I must pass along the way, so am easily able to slow down and speed up accordingly.” He went on to add that perhaps mobile speed camera units, such as those used in the UK, may be a better alternative when it comes to clamping down on speeding drivers. Similarly, many other drivers get around the regulations against using mobile phones while driving by simply hiding them when going through police checkpoints or passing a police patrol.
Another organisation that believes harsher penalties are in order for those flouting traffic laws is Oman Road Safety Association (ORSA). “Motorists in Oman hardly observe self-restraint. Therefore, there must be a deterrent to stop such offenders,” says CEO, Shaima al Lawati. “Unfortunately, many people are negative about the amendments and actually think that the rules and heftier fines are there to milk money from them and not for their own safety,” she adds.
One member of the legal committee of the Majlis Al Shura agrees with the increase in fines, and was quoted in local media as saying: “With stricter penalties, such as jail terms and monetary fines, people will think twice before committing an offence. This will reduce major accidents in which people are killed or maimed for life.” According to ROP records, 1,001 people were fined for jumping traffic signals, while 3,889,301 fines were imposed for various traffic offences in 2013. Mrs al Lawati tells Y that she believes the ROP has a major role to play. “Instead of the police just handing them a ticket, they should explain why they are being fined. The role of the police officer is to educate the driver of his or her mistake. This way the driver would appreciate the information given and perhaps start to think differently in future.”
There is a slight silver lining though. Towards the end of October, the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) released figures showing that road accidents in Oman had fallen by 30 per cent this year. An earlier report released by the NCSI in January revealed that 12 per cent of the Sultanate’s road accidents resulted in a fatality, producing an average of one death in every 10 road accidents.
Children under the age of 15 make up more than 40 per cent of all deaths on the roads, yet there is no law in place to check on the background of school bus drivers or their past driving records. Last year, Y kick-started a campaign for mandatory car seats and seatbelts for children in the rear of vehicles in an attempt to tackle this worrying statistic. ORSA has recently picked up the cause, launching a “Buckle Up” campaign that targets schools in Muscat, Dakhliyah and Dhahirah governorates in particular.
“Global and local studies have found that most drivers and passengers killed in crashes are unrestrained. Global research has found that seatbelts reduce the risk of death by 45 per cent and serious injury by 50 per cent among drivers and front-seat passengers,” said Amor bin Nasser al Matani, chairmain of ORSA, when talking to a local newspaper. The campaign, held in association with BP Oman, aims to raise awareness among 5,000 students and teachers by the end of 2014, which is only a matter of weeks away, teaching them the importance of using seatbelts and child restraints.
Many road safety groups, including ORSA and Safety First Oman, are pushing for an overhaul of the punishments in place and would like to see even higher fines imposed, as well as court summons and a penalty-points system, with disqualification from driving as a deterrent.
“Drivers throughout the Gulf states are fortunate that governments have not yet introduced a demerit points system, which would result in the suspension of a person’s driving licence after committing a specific number of infringements,” said Mr Hardie. “I assume this will happen in the near future.”
Of course, this will do little to limit the people who drive without a licence. Speaking to local media, ORSA’s Shaima al Lawati related the story of a 17-year-old girl who borrowed her parents’ car – with their permission – only to cause a crash that resulted in the deaths of not only her brother, but also the woman and two children who were in the car she hit. According to a source at the ROP, individuals who are caught driving without a licence are imprisoned for 24 hours and have their vehicle seized. It is, however, not regarded as a “very big” matter, the source reveals.
So what is to be done? Mrs al Lawati would call for punishments that stray outside the box, recommending that those who break traffic laws should be forced to complete social service or community work, helping relevant NGOs such as road safety groups. In somewhat of a shock tactic, she argues that by doing this, offenders would be exposed to the dangers of their actions. Others, such as Safety First Oman, argue that a black-point system – already used in the UAE – in which drivers are given points for individual offences and can result in their licences being revoked and the driver being disqualified for a set period, is the way forward. Confiscating cars from repeat offenders might also see results.
But one thing is clear: the situation is not going to be rectified by legislation alone. For tragic accidents and reckless driving to become a thing of the past, common sense and patience on the part of Oman’s road users are going to be two facilitating factors. Unfortunately, this is not something that any laws can enforce.
The ROP fined Y deputy editor Kate Ginn last week for using her mobile phone while driving
She says: “As soon as I saw the police light flashing over to my left side, I knew that I was in trouble. And I knew exactly why the police patrol on the Sultan Qaboos Highway in Muscat was pulling me over. “I was making a call on my mobile phone while driving.
“Yes, I know it’s illegal and an incredibly stupid thing to do, putting not only myself, but also other drivers in danger. “Funnily enough, I consider myself a safe driver – I passed my driving test the first time at the age of 17 and almost 30 years later, have a relatively unblemished record.
“So why did I risk such potentially disastrous consequences, when I’m aware that using a mobile for driving [whether to make calls or text] is one of the main causes of accidents in Oman? “It was simply a case of needing to make an urgent business call and not being in a position to pull over safely to the hard shoulder, despite being in the slow lane. My rental car is old and doesn’t have the technology to sync with my phone to make calls for me, nor do I own a hands-free kit [I’ve never felt the need to buy one]. “It’s not the first time that I’ve used my phone to call or text while driving either. There are times when it seems a necessity. Of course, a safety expert would say nothing is so important to risk possibly killing yourself or someone else in a metal machine.
“I know the statistics and I know the damage it can cause, having reported on such accidents during my career, and yet still I made the call.
“On the hard shoulder, the ROP officer said one word – ‘phone’ – and issued me with a ticket, which I’ve been told will cost me around RO25.
“So will it deter me from using my mobile phone while behind the wheel? Well, I haven’t used it in the car since, but hand on heart I can’t promise that I never will, as much as people might berate me for saying so. Getting stopped and fined will certainly make me think twice before picking up the phone again while driving, but to be honest it’s not enough to stop me altogether.”
Y’s Deeba Hasan was the victim of a road accident that came about as a result of careless driving
She says: “Despite heavier traffic fines in recent months, most drivers still don’t adhere to the rules. Away from the radars or police patrols, it seems they revert back to a routine of speeding, using their mobile phones and basically flouting traffic safety rules.
“Three weeks ago, I was driving along a street close to Al Ghubra beach. I queued up at the traffic lights and as soon as it was green, we began to move slowly. There was also a left turn after a small hump in the road, causing cars to slow down when turning.
“The driver of the car in front of me did just that and I slowed down as well. Unfortunately, the driver behind me neglected to stop, resulting in a bone-shaking collision.
“In a state of shock, I got out of the car and walked round to the see the damage. It was bad. His car seemed perfectly fine, though.
“Of course, we both pulled over to the side of the road and called the police. My car was drivable and so we visited the Al Sarooj police station, where I was horrified to learn that the 25-year-old had crashed into me because he was texting on WhatsApp.
“Ever since that day, I have been without a car as I wait for the other driver’s insurance company to sort everything out. I’ve had to borrow my dad’s car on several occasions because the insurance will not provide me with a courtesy car in the meantime.
“The nature of my job requires me to attend events, interviews and press conferences and it’s been such a struggle to even make it into the office because of this unfortunate episode.
“As for the driver of the car who hit me, he escaped without punishment. If I had reported him to the police, I’m told he would have got a fine, but I was too frustrated at the time to bother. I honestly have no idea as to when I will get my car back. The young man who hit me was a graduate of one of the best private colleges in Oman, but unfortunately it seems he wasn’t given enough road safety education. If only he wasn’t texting and driving at the same time that day, I would have my car with me and all would be well.”
Y sub-editor Matt Blackwell was caught speeding last year in the UK and talks of the measures in place there
He says: “It was the final few days of the brief British summer last year. The sun was out, my music was playing loud and I was driving home from work for the weekend – needless to say, I was in high spirits. At least I was until I glanced slightly to my left. Inconspicuously parked on the pavement was a mobile speed camera unit. I shot a frenzied glance at my speedometer and saw that I was travelling above the legal speed limit and quickly applied my brakes. The needle shot down to a more acceptable level, but nonetheless I found myself haunted by one question: had I put the anchors on in time?
“I received the answer through the post a few weeks later in the form of a letter from the Leicestershire police, inviting me to attend a speed awareness course at a suitably convenient time. So the answer to my haunting question was a resounding no then. Although saying that, things could have been a lot worse. I was clocked at 9.6kph over the legal limit of 48kph, which meant that I avoided a fixed fine, penalty points on my licence or a driving ban, but I did have to pay £90 (RO54) for the pleasure of attending the re-education course.
“I took the morning off work and made my way down to the centre where the course was being held, finding a seat in a busy seminar room, where an almost palpable feeling of collective guilt hung thick in the air. Over the next five hours, my fellow speeders and I were shown a number of safety videos, documenting the often grim results of accidents and took part in a number of interactive activities, through which the session leader tested our collective knowledge of the Highway Code, often to be disappointed with the results.
“I would call the session a success as many people, myself included, left enlightened as to the specifics of the law and the ramifications of driving above a safe and legal limit. I, for one, drove back to work very carefully that day, constantly monitoring my speed. Did it change my driving in the long run? Probably not. After a few weeks, the old habits resurfaced and I found myself creeping ever so slightly above the speed limit in the hope of getting to my destination that little bit sooner, especially if I was on my way home for the weekend. But I haven’t been caught speeding since.”