Young male drivers are putting their lives and others at risk with their reckless behaviour on Oman’s roads. Kate Ginn and Alvin Thomas investigate traffic accidents in Oman
At the age of 18, Karim was involved in a terrible accident while riding his motorbike. He admits that he’d been “showing off” to his friends, performing silly stunts to impress them by weaving to and fro on a road and had just straightened up when a car smashed into the side of him. It was Eid and the traffic in Al Hamra, Karim’s hometown in the Dakhiliyah region, was busy.
“I don’t remember much. Just that the street was filled with blood, my blood, and it was everywhere,” says Karim.
The driver of the car, a learner being taught by her husband, escaped without injury.
But Karim suffered a horrendous gash to the side of his neck where the steel and glass from the car’s windscreen gored into him. After 15 days in an intensive care unit in Muscat, he was flown to Thailand for treatment to his wound and right hand, which was paralysed.
“I feel lucky to be alive,” he says now. A few inches deeper and it could have been his jugular vein.
Four years later, the physical scars remain; a livid lump of scar tissue on the right side of his neck is a constant reminder of that day when he came close to losing his life.
You might think that Karim, now 22 and who has progressed to cars from motorbikes, would be an extra careful driver, overcautious to the extreme and zealous about road safety, after his traumatic experience.
Far from it.
The young Omani openly admits to being reckless on the roads; speeding up to 200kph, not using a seat belt, undertaking dangerous manoeuvres and using his smartphone at the wheel.
Even more alarming is that he seems oblivious to – or refuses to acknowledge – the risks that he poses to himself and other road users by his behaviour. When asked about it, he shrugs and says: “I like to drive fast. I’m not afraid what might happen.”
Even when asked to imagine a young child running into the path of his car while he’s speeding and the potential devastating consequences, he seems unmoved.
Karim is the type of young, Omani male driver that the Royal Oman Police (ROP) is targeting in a concerted effort to make the Sultanate’s roads safer for everyone.
And following our investigation last month into bus safety after a spate of fatal accidents, Y is this week turning its attention to the phenomenon of young drivers as we continue to campaign for safer roads in Oman.
Statistically, young men are more likely to be involved in or cause traffic accidents. Young Omanis aged between 16 and 25 make up about 20 per cent of the population, yet account for more than 31 per cent of road crash-related fatalities and 37 per cent of crash-related injuries, according to ROP figures.
“This over-representation of young road users in traffic crashes and fatalities is intolerable,” says a paper, “Road Traffic Injuries Among Young Drivers in Oman”, published in the Oman Medical Journal in September 2014.
Written by Hamed al Reesi, an epidemiologist at Sultan Qaboos University, and Abdullah al Maniri, director of the Road Safety Research Programme at Oman’s Research Council, they explored why young drivers exhibit such behaviour on the roads.
Research shows that young drivers are aggressive and more easily distracted while driving. Young Omani drivers show higher levels of risky behaviour compared with other GCC drivers.
“Young drivers are particularly influenced by whom they have interacted with and current research in Oman and overseas has identified the increasing role and importance of peers and parents on young driver behaviour,” says the report.
“In particular, the current Oman-based research about young drivers is starting to uncover the seminal role of parents as both a role model and influence in promoting safe driving behaviour.”
In other words, young people often copy or mirror behaviour from their parents, so bad driving can be a “learned” habit.
Even more disturbing is the growing trend of underage joyriders in Oman, often leaving in their wake a trail of tragedy, debt and destruction.
Mounting police evidence released in February revealed that increasing numbers of youngsters under the age of 18 are getting behind the wheels of cars, often their parents’ vehicles taken without consent.
As many as 36 children in the seven to 15-year age group lost their lives in traffic accidents in 2014, while a further 834 youngsters suffered injuries.
In the same year, road accidents claimed the lives of 281 young people in the 16 to 25-age group and injured 3,947 more, a staggering figure.
In February this year, a teenager died after taking his father’s car for a joyride and crashing head-on into a taxi on Seeb Beach Road, just down from Y’s office, after losing control of the vehicle. The front of both cars disintegrated from the impact. The boy’s parents rushed to the scene after hearing the news. A passenger in the car survived. A relative said the young driver had stolen the key to the family’s SUV from his father’s pocket.
The minimum age for granting an Omani driving licence is 17 for Omani nationals and 18 for expatriates.
Stricter penalties for underage drivers, including RO50 for driving without a licence, do not seem to have perturbed the young drivers. Even the prospect of being locked up – teenagers caught driving without a licence face being jailed for 48 hours – does not seem to be a deterrent.
Oman is not by any means the only GCC country facing this problem. A recent craze sweeping Saudi Arabia has seen young boys, some barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel, being filmed driving and speeding illegally. The internet is awash with videos showing the insanely dangerous stunts with boys hitting speeds of more than 144kph, incredibly sometimes with their parents sitting beside them in the passenger seat.
Saudi Arabia has one of the worst traffic records in the world, where about 17 people are killed in crashes every day. Sadly, Oman is not far behind, with recent figures suggesting there are more than seven road accidents around the country every day and an overage of 56 deaths every month, meaning we also have one of the worst records for road accidents in the GCC.
Police and road safety campaigners are facing an uphill battle to put the brakes on young drivers who flout the law.
One suggestion is a Graduated Driving Licensing (GDL) programme, which gradually increases novice drivers to more complex situations and uses a three-phase system that starts with a learner licence, moves up to provisional and finally a full licence.
The system was first introduced in New Zealand in 1987 and has since been extended to Australia, the United States and Canada.
Bernadette Bhacker-Millard, an Omani lawyer and co-owner of Sustainability, a non-profit Omani road safety organisation, says any measure that addresses high-risk driving behaviour should be welcomed.
But she adds that the argument for GDL in Oman is based on statistics that over a third of crashes involve young drivers. “This does not correlate to young drivers being responsible for over a third of deaths and injuries in crashes,” she says. “In fact, the third of young people who die or are injured in road crashes every year are as likely to be passengers in cars driven by a parent, family member or caretaker driver, or pedestrians.”
Mrs Bhacker-Millard, who also created and developed the Salim and Salimah road safety education campaign in the Sultanate, believes a wider net needs to be cast.
“Improving the standard of driving across all age groups should be the number one focus if Oman is to make sustained headway in reducing its road crash toll. A complete overhaul of the driver licensing system, re-training of driving instructors, retesting and rehabilitative training of older drivers is likely to be far more effective.”
Other measures put forward to improve young driver safety include nighttime driving restrictions and training or retesting for repeat offenders.
A retired ROP officer, who did not want to be identified for privacy reasons, believes Oman is too “soft” on young drivers, saying that European road safety standards are stricter than the Sultanate.
“When I was in the police 20 years ago, we had a problem with young drivers but less than now,” he says.
“I think young people aren’t afraid of their parents or police like they used to be. The uniform would mean something to them and they would respect the police. This generation is not afraid.
“Driving fast is about all about showing off their strength. It’s part of a macho culture.”
Y contacted the ROP to ask about its approach to young drivers, but had not received a reply at the time of going to press.
Hafiz, a 23-year-old student at Modern College of Business and Science, is a case in point. A “need for speed” was embedded in his blood as a youngster.
“I was exposed to expensive cars at a very young age and I used to dream of taking them to their limits,” he tells Y.
As his father owns a used-car showroom, he has had ready access to an array of exotic and fast cars, including a Lamborghini. Since acquiring his licence at the age of 18, he frequently takes his cars past the 300kph mark, especially on the Al Mabela to Barka highway.
Yousuf, a 24-year-old Omani who owns a local business in Al Amerat, says speeding has become a part of his daily routine. “I find the need to hit the 180kph mark essential to make it to my client meetings in Muttrah on time,” he says. Yousef, who received his licence at 19, credits his first car, a BMW 325i, for fuelling his need for speed. “I speed up in areas where there is no traffic or speed cameras as I don’t want my recklessness to put anyone in danger,” he says.
Karim, the young Omani we spoke to earlier, admits that before he passed his test, he would frequently drive without a licence and took his father’s car without his consent to go joyriding.
“I was driving for two years until I got my licence at 17. I would take my father’s car. He would get really angry and shout at me, but he gave up after a while because I didn’t stop.
“I was caught by the police twice for driving without a licence and got fined RO50 each time.”
Time, it seems, hasn’t mellowed his driving behaviour.
He’s regularly fined for speeding – last month he paid out RO100 – and admits to wild overtaking and doing dangerous stunts, such as doughnuts (a manoeuvre involving spinning the rear of the car round in a circle).
“I don’t use a seat belt, either,” he says. “I don’t like it across my body as it feels too restrictive. Just last week, I got fined RO10 by the police for not wearing a belt.
“When I see the police, I pull the belt across my body as if I’m wearing it and then remove it when the police have gone.
“Sometimes a big part of my salary each month goes on paying fines for different things. Last month, I was fined a total of RO100 for speeding.
“My parents and friends daily tell me to slow down and be more careful.
“I never drive badly when someone else is in the car with me and I haven’t had an accident since the one with my motorbike.”
According to Roma Fernandes, a clinical psychologist at Whispers of Serenity Clinic in Azaiba, men are generally more risk-takers, although she believes women are now prepared to gamble more.
“Even after being fully aware morally about the risks of using a phone while driving, they still choose to ignore it, mostly because we are in a generation that is always on the go. There is no time to slow down and even driving is considered just another mundane and time-consuming activity,” she says.
Add to this a sense of being untouchable and it’s a recipe for disaster.
“There is the sense of invincibility to it as well because we tend to think that it will never happen to me,” says Ms Fernandes.
“So we are easily lulled into a false sense of security and we only tend to realise the errors of our ways after a tragic accident.
“All of this adds to the fact that they [young drivers] do not consider the risks they are putting themselves in as well as the risks for others.”
If this is painting a bleak picture of young drivers in the Sultanate, it’s only fair to say that not all youth can be accused of reckless driving.
Indeed, we spoke to several young people who are model drivers and pride themselves on their track records.
Jafin, a 23-year-old student from Middle East College, considers drifting and speeding unnecessary and tailgating “haram”.
“Yes, I have received four tickets since I got my licence back in 2012. But I tend to keep within the speed limit now,” he says.
“Every time I feel like doing something irrational, I think about my family; I don’t know what they would do without me.”
Another student, Akhil, 19, says he has been fined once for speeding and had an accident when a reckless youngster hit his car at Qurum Heights.
“I cannot imagine harming another soul. I know that if I speed, I will eventually lose control and take someone, if not myself, out.”
Speeding among young people is still on the whole gender focused. Young women are far less likely to speed or take risks.
“I may have taken my vehicle past the speed limit once or twice on my way to college,” says Dhawani Shah, 23, a former student at Middle East College. “But I have never felt the need to speed my way into trouble. There are adequate restrictions imposed by the ROP and I believe the fines for speeding are appallingly high.”
Perhaps a different approach is what’s needed to bring about change on our roads. The Oman Automobile Association (OAA) in Seeb has had good success with a scheme to provide a safe environment for young men to practice drifting and burn off their energy and thirst for speed out of harm’s way.
One young Omani woman says the OAA has helped her 22-year-old brother channel his zeal for driving into a positive hobby.
“My brother started driving when he was 13 or 14. He would take cars and drive fast.
“Then he started going to the OAA and got into drifting there. He’s very good at it and goes to Dubai to take part in events.
“It took his energy for cars and made it in a good way. He’s now studying to be a mechanic.
“I think you cannot stop young men driving like this, but you can advise them and help them go in the right direction like my brother.”
Everyone has a different theory on how to stop reckless young drivers in their tracks. From tougher penalties to providing more safe areas for youngsters to drive away from the main roads, the debate goes on.
Whatever the answer, the experts seem to be in agreement that it is going to be a long and rocky road.
After chatting to us about his driving and listening to the dangers, Karim proudly shows us a video of himself in a vehicle, spinning the back wheels while the brake is on as burning rubber and smoke pour out from the back.
He gives a thumbs-up and heads back to his car waiting outside.
1. Learner’s Licence
2. Provisional licence
3. Full Licence
Even small differences in speed can make a big difference to the probability of death or injury. For every extra kilometre per hour of speed, you increase:
For example, in a 60kph speed zone, driving at 65kph, you face twice the risk of death or injury. At 70kph, the risk is more than quadruple the risk at 60kph
[one_half]Speed – kph[/one_half]
[one_half_last]Risk relative to 60 kph[/one_half_last]
Speeding at 30kph over the limit increases by 60 times the risk of a casualty crash occurring.
For pedestrians, the risks are even greater. A person hit by a car travelling at 40kph has a 75 per cent chance of surviving. Hit at 60kph the pedestrian’s odds of survival drop dramatically to 15 per cent.
The faster you go, the further you travel before you stop. The average driver takes about 1.5 seconds to react once he or she has spotted a hazard. An increase of 10-15kph can mean the difference between life and death.
* Source: Salim and Salimah