Death by Distraction!

04 Jul 2018
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Road accidents can be prevented. And while the Sultanate is on the fast-track when it comes to addressing issues of road safety, fatalities are still occurring at an alarming rate. Y’s Alvin Thomas speaks to safety experts and gets personal with a survivor to trace the route towards an accident-free Oman.

When death knocks it does so unannounced. Jerome* was only 19 when the car crash that nearly took his life happened on a day like any other, as most road accidents always do. His first wreck, while nearly fatal, marked him indelibly – becoming what would be his greatest life lesson. For without it, he says, he probably wouldn’t be alive today.

While grim, his story began when his parents gifted him a car for his 18th birthday – a humble sedan. The Indian expat would use it to commute from his home in Wadi Kabir to college in Seeb on weekdays.

The Sultan Qaboos Highway on a busy day.

The 55km journey would take him upwards of 45 minutes so, he says, he would use that time to catch up with his mates on social media – wheel in one hand, mobile in the other.

“I don’t like wasting time, and I thought that driving was consuming too much of it,” he says. “So I would text my friends, watch short Vines (short videos), make calls and – in some cases – also study while driving.”.

These vagaries of distraction are all too common among youth on the roads in Oman today says one Royal Oman Police (ROP) traffic officer (who wishes to remain anonymous), and mobile phone use while driving is extremely common among young drivers and office commuters. “We see people lose their lives and take completely innocent lives due to such acts of carelessness.”

A brush with death

Jerome confesses that he thought he was “invincible”. After all, he was driving “daily without any incidents.”

His luck and overconfidence ran out on the night of September 24, 2016 as, along the Sultan Qaboos Highway, he came face-to-face in a close brush with death that he describes was “a life-changing lesson.”

“After completing a class project, I was on my way back home. I was on the phone with my friend – and I remember that I was discussing movie matters.

“Soon, the car in front of us in the fast lane hit the brakes, and I was too late to respond. All I can remember is that I clipped the corner of the car.

“When I opened my eyes next, I was at the hospital. But not just any hospital. I’d been flown to India. Both my legs were paralyzed, and the pillar from the car had gored into my eye,” he recalls.

Jerome says that after spending 16 days in intensive care and another three months in rehabilitation – which included physiotherapy – he came back to Oman. But he was a changed man… left a paraplegic and without his left eye.

Today, he is just one among several residents in Oman that are still recovering from the repercussions of bad choices they made while behind the wheel. He calls himself one of the “lucky few who can wake up to see the dawn of day” – and has since also become a safe driving advocate.

Reckless behaviour: A case study

To come to terms with the prevalency of violations and infractions encountered on Omani roads, Team Y took a long drive from our offices in Seeb to the Al Amerat Heights on Friday [June 29] – and counted road violations during peak traffic hours.

Our ride-along observer could report more than 88 violations over the course of the 50km journey.

Sitting atop the list, with 49 violations, was texting and driving. This was followed by 20 counts of switching lanes without indication; six cases of tailgating – of which we were a victim; six cases of over-speeding; five cases of driving without the use of a seatbelt; and two cases of children buckled to the front seats without the use of a child-seat.

Thankfully, we didn’t run into any cases of accidents during the drive.

Child-seats were made mandatory in cars with children under the age of four, in March of this year, and the Omani Penal Code even states that a person who puts a child below the age of seven in a dangerous situation would be jailed for a minimum period of three months.

In truth, these are the types of drivers that the ROP are targeting in a concerted effort to make the Sultanate’s roads safer. And things are – at least on paper – looking to shape up.

For instance, the roads in Oman saw a 39.8 per cent drop in road accidents, up to the beginning of last month [June 2018], when compared with the same period from last year.

On-scene medics at a crash site.

The report released by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) also reveals that there’s been 797 registered accidents recorded across the Sultanate, when compared with the 1,323 registered during the same period in 2017.

These resulted in 43 deaths and 273 injuries, compared to 52 deaths and 251 injuries, last year.

In an exclusive interview with Y, Ali al Barwani, the Chief Executive Officer of the Oman Road Safety Association (ORSA) says: “The numbers of accidents in Oman have dropped – and we’re very happy to hear that. But, we will not be satisfied and cannot rest until this country is completely accident-free.

“That’s ORSA’s goal, and we’re in conjunction with the ROP to improve our efforts in making the roads a safer place for commuters,” he adds.

“All accidents are a matter of concern to us – be it a youngster or an adult. But when the United Nations had laid down the guidelines on its efforts to reduce road fatalities, it focused on people of the age groups of 15 to 35.

“Behaviour and road manners are of great concern when driving. Maturity and discipline come with age – and that’s something you attain as you age, or learn from experience,” he states.

Tighter laws to come

Sadly, Jerome and many others had to learn about this the hard way.

But things are starting to look up as the ROP have implemented newer – and stricter – laws governing commuters on the roads.

Among them is a new, temporary driving license that will oversee and rate new drivers before a permanent driving license is handed over. This means that new drivers will be now be issued a temporary driving license for a period of one year.

These licenses will also be subjected to a new points system, which will keep track of whether the driver is capable enough behind the wheel. Those issued with 10 ‘black’ points on their temporary driving license will be sent back to the driving school to take more lessons.

ROP will be strict in cracking down on offenders.

Ali tells us: “I think this is a brilliant move. This law will allow the ROP to make sure that those driving are 100 per cent fit to take control of the wheel.

“And that’s not all, the duration of the temporary license is enough for the authorities to keep track of any road violations or mistakes that may be committed. This will make way for better drivers in the future,” he adds.

Statistically, young men are more likely to be involved in, or cause, traffic accidents. The ROP figures reveal that, on average, young Omanis ages 16 to 25 make up about 20 per cent of the population, but account for more than 31 per cent of road crash-related fatalities and 37 per cent of crash-related injuries.

The ROP were proven right when, in January, one person died, and two others were left hospitalised after they were involved in an accident caused due to drifting dangerously on the road.

The freak accident was caught on-camera – and the car that was drifting was seen to have lost control before crashing into another vehicle.

Talking about the incident is Mohammed Saleh, a 22-year-old Omani engineer, who found himself fascinated by the art of drifting when he was only 18!

He says: “I can understand that a lot of young Omani men who are frustrated in their jobs, relationships, and other matters can take it out in their cars on the road. This then becomes a form of entertainment for many onlookers – and the young men take it into their hands to become the stars of the moment.

“This is almost always the reason for accidents caused by drifting,” he says.

“I was among these men, too. However, my friends took matters into their hands and enrolled me with the Oman Automobile Association (OAA), where I could drift safely,” he adds, before going on to advise youngsters about the importance of keeping the act on the drifting course at the OAA.

Education begins at home

Your children are the future of this country. Act responsibly!

Speaking to Y, Ali describes the importance of how parents must understand and regulate their children’s actions. He says: “It’s not fair to tell parents or control them in a manner as to which they shouldn’t be allowed to buy cars for their children.

“But it’s a fact that most youngsters rely on their parents’ money to get their cars. So, it’s the duty of the parent to make sure that the child acts responsibly on the road. The ROP and other authorities can only do so much to make the roads safer.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to the drivers to do their part. It’s extremely upsetting to see many young lives ending due to one mistake on the road,” he adds.

“Life is precious – and that’s what these kids must be taught. If a mistake you committed ends the life of one or more other people, can you live with the guilt?”

The ROP is on overdrive on their crackdown on violators.

Our source at the ROP tells us: “There’s a lot of people who take driving for granted. And these accidents can result in the loss of innocent lives.

“As we all know, there are speed cameras fitted in every possible segment of the road. But in areas that are inaccessible by cameras, we’ve also started fitting mobile cameras. It’s been incredibly effective in catching speeding violators.

“The introduction of average-speed cameras can also reduce cases of people increasing their speed in between cameras,” the source adds.

Ali concurs with the ROP’s adoption of newer technologies. “Technology has advanced to a great extent and the ROP is making use of it in every possible way to keep us safe on the roads. And we can expect to see smarter and more fool-proof systems fitted on the roads soon,” he says.

“But no amount of technology can beat the human mind. So, it’s up to us to make this happen. We’re all striving for a country free from fatalities arising from road accidents.”

In their efforts to reach out to the masses, ORSA has teamed up with several local and international companies in Oman, and the ROP, to host road safety awareness activities.

He states: “We understand that a lot of people will be travelling to Salalah for the Khareef Festival in August. So, we’ll be hosting a road safety awareness campaign in the city for a period of 10 days. It is our duty to help reduce road accidents.”

Over the course of Khareef season, more than 500,000 people are expected to visit the region in Dhofar, and ORSA’s initiative to reach out to the masses should pave way for more families to be educated on the concepts of road safety.

The organization will also be introducing a ‘child-seat campaign’ during the festival to educate young families on the importance of buckling down their children to a protective seat while commuting.

Meanwhile, Jerome, who is now settling into his new job in Oman can only make things right by educating young drivers on the importance of “safe and defensive driving”.

“I’ve accepted myself now,” he says “Though, I wish I could see through both my eyes. I want to be normal again. I wish I could undo what I have done.”

* Name changed to protect identity

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