Alvin Thomas reports on why Oman is toughening up on traffic laws and talks to one young man who has paid a heavy price for his reckless driving.
There’s a saying that goes: “Your best teacher is your last mistake.”
But for 22-year-old Filipino expatriate Joshua*, his only mistake behind the wheel of his sports hatchback also turned out to the last error he would ever commit on the road.
Today, Joshua, a product promoter, is lucky to be alive but his life will never be the same again.
It all started when he passed his driving test at his first attempt, at the tender age of 18.
“Not many people are lucky enough to get their licence at their first attempt but when I did I thought I was the best driver in the whole world,” he says.
“I quickly bought a car – my dream car – a yellow hatchback. It was beautiful, and all I ever did for the first few months was clean it with a special cloth and wipe off even the slightest of dust particles on it,” he laughs.
However, as time went by, things started to change. “I started driving rashly. I would do 150kph in 120kph zones, and slow down only for the camera. Likewise, once I reached the 100kph zone, I would still be doing 120 and 130kph, depending on my mood. I thought I was invincible.
“At this time I was also in a committed relationship. I would be on the phone with my girl; texting and talking to her for hours straight – driving time included. And I remember it like yesterday. I was having an argument with her over things that were happening at work, and things got heated. I was typing out a message, when my car ran over a small bump on the Sultan Qaboos highway, and I lost control at around 150kph.
“I couldn’t regain control of the car, and graced the side boulder, and then – as eyewitnesses told me – the car rolled over. I have only seen images of the car and I cannot believe that I am still alive.
“All I remember was me covering my head, and the hot air from the airbags burning my face and eyes. I must have passed out after that.
“I underwent six surgeries, as I also suffered from head trauma. But my right leg – which is ironically the one that I used to push to speed – was amputated,” Joshua says in tears.
“Things have never been the same and they will never be the same again.
“I learned from my mistake but it was too late. Since then, I have been very open about my story to my close friends and family. In a way, I now take caution in everything I do. But my parents would have lost me – their only son – if things had gone a little different.”
Joshua now urges everyone to “pay attention on the road like your life depends on it”.
He is one of many who have faced death behind the wheel of his or her car in Oman and has lived to tell the tale. But not everybody is so lucky. As a matter of fact, 52 people lost their lives in road accidents in January alone this year, according to recent statistics published by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI).
On a recent trip to Suhar, we also witnessed a serious accident in which the driver of a speeding bus lost control and smashed head-on into a tree. The conditions of the passengers and the driver are as yet unknown.
“A lot of things have yet to be done when it comes to road safety,” says Ali al Barwani, the chief executive of the Oman Road Safety Association (ORSA), the only registered non-profit and non-governmental road safety organisation established under the Ministry of Social Development.
“If you look at the statistics, it is painful. Nearly three people die every day on the roads in Oman. Every individual who loses his or her life is a human being. He or she is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, husband or wife. And plucking the person’s life away is quite emotional,” he adds.
The NCSI also reveals that 318 accidents (fatal and non-fatal) were recorded in the Sultanate in January alone.
Furthermore, 191 people were injured as a result of accidents during the same period. But these numbers have declined compared with those in previous years.
In a recent interview, Daryl Hardie, the chief executive of Safety First, a road safety organisation in Oman, said: “The authorities are doing a great job in reducing accidents, and people are more aware of the importance of road safety. Hopefully, we shall see more accidents reduced in the near future.”
In August last year, Royal Oman Police (ROP) introduced laws and fines to put the brakes on bad driving in the Sultanate. For instance, drivers caught with a mobile phone “in hand” or holding any other electrical equipment face 10 days in jail or a fine of up to RO300, in comparison to the previous fine of RO35.
Speeding – the number one killer on the Sultanate’s roads – has also been on the radar of the ROP. A fine ranging from RO100 to RO500 will be inflicted on those who speed, drive recklessly, dangerously, endanger life or put property at risk.
While the new traffic laws were introduced last year to impose stricter penalties on traffic violations, the executive regulations for the traffic law are still being drafted.
One source working in tandem with the ROP, and who declined to be named, confirmed to Y that a company in Oman had received an order for 700 point-to-point “average speed cameras” for installation in and around the Sultanate.
The point-to-point cameras are currently undergoing rigorous testing in undisclosed locations but they are not yet taking photos of offenders. But our source assures us that these cameras will be installed and running soon.
“I hope that the regulations are completed at the earliest opportunity. Like I said before, the driver is accountable for his actions, and accidents can happen whether the driver is not concentrating, is negligent or is speeding. Some accidents just happen and you don’t know how or why. If drivers are hurt in their pockets, they might adhere to the law and drive responsibly,” the source says.
According to the NCSI, there was a 28.2 per cent drop in the number of accidents in January (318 accidents) compared with the same period in 2016, which recorded 443 accidents. Meanwhile, injury rates fell to 191, or a 10.4 per cent drop, in January, down from 213, in the same period last year (January 2016). The death rate also fell 10.3 per cent in the same period.
“For the police, this drop in the number of accidents and deaths are an achievement. And to an extent, it is commendable. However, we need to aim for an accident-free country. We are such an advanced country and yet we force ourselves to make mistakes on the road,” says Ali al Barwani from ORSA.
“The saying ‘prevention is better than cure’ applies here. We need to avoid a chance that could lead to something awful. You cannot simply blame it on destiny. You need to start accepting that you have control over what you do.”
Ibrahim, who did not want his surname to be used, is an officer with the ROP, and says: “We are working incredibly hard to bring the rates down and eventually avert accidents. If you have noticed, we conduct spot checks to ensure that everyone is complying with the laws.
“We specifically keep an eye for those using their mobile phones on the road, as they not only pose a threat to themselves but also to others. There is a misconception that we are fining people for the money but the truth is that we are trying to bring order to the roads.
“Numerous people break the laws by speeding excessively, using the phone while driving, jumping red signals, changing lanes without indicating and even tinting windows heavily. These are the things that we keep an eye out for.
“If the police stop you, don’t be afraid. Just talk to him or her, and hear what the officer has to say. Be calm and patient, and adhere to the laws, and we shall not be having any problems anywhere,” the officer adds, before stating that the statistics show a definite decline in accident rates.
The NCSI report revealed that 4,721 accidents and 692 deaths were registered in 2016, as opposed to 6,279 accidents and 675 deaths in 2015.
“Every life counts, and every time you get into your car, you need to accept that whatever you do will have consequences. And if you can accept that, you will be a better person behind the wheel of your car, and a respectable driver on the road,” Ibrahim says.
Meanwhile, ORSA’s Ali al Barwani warns that the Sultanate’s roads have become a “killer”.
“We have to bring down the numbers and for that, we need to stand and work together to bring a sense on oneness on the roads. Respect the rules of the road, and don’t underestimate the task that is at hand.”