Commuting across the Sultanate’s highways poses risks far greater than those of several of its GCC neighbours. And, as worshippers across Oman observe a period of fasting during the Holy Month of Ramadan, Y investigates the deadly upsurge in collisions and fatalities that comes with it, and what steps are being taken to curb these crashes.
Sometimes being in the wrong place at the wrong time can spell disaster.
In the case of Hilal* al Shaibani – who was a budding engineer, footballer, musician, and aspiring entrepreneur – it resulted in what his parents call a “violent death” as the result of a road accident.
This marks the sixth Ramadan after his tragic passing – but his family is far from accepting a life without their beloved son, and all that remains in his memory are the belongings in his room at their family villa in Azaiba.
A life full of promise cut short because of the negligence of a speeding driver on the Sultan Qaboos Highway during a commute back to his friends’ house in Barka for iftar on the fateful evening of July 2013.
In an interview with Y, Hilal’s father, Rashid, tells us: “There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ that we throw around home whenever we talk about our son.
“What if he’d stayed back home for iftar that evening? What if he’d left only two minutes later? What if he’d taken up that course in Germany and left for his master’s education?
“Perhaps our son would still be alive,” a teary-eyed Rashid says, as his wife – Hilal’s mother – looks on bereaved.
The tears rolling down her eyes could perhaps script a million stories from her memories with her child, but that’s not the case.
“The reality is that Hilal is gone. Our lives have been changed forever. He had so much to give. So much talent and efforts have gone back to Allah,” he adds.
It’s a grim sight. So grim in fact that we’re left pondering how safe are we on the roads today.
Figures and statistics from the earlier months this year seem to paint a different, if even optimistic, picture.
As per data released by the National Centre for Statistics & Information (NCSI), there were 3,845 road accidents in 2017 when compared with 2,802 accidents in 2018 – this marks a stark but significant 27 per cent decrease from the previous year.
It’s a reduction that’s to be commended, and it shows how Oman is well en route to becoming one of the safest roads for commuting in the region in comparison to its neighbours – but the flip side is that those such as Hilal have been deprived of the opportunity to see the safer tomorrow the nation strives to build.
The offender that caused the accident, and subsequently Hilal’s death, has been tried in court and jailed for negligent and reckless driving.
But it was his response in court that baffled our informant – a Royal Oman Police (ROP) official who wishes to remain unnamed. He says: “The offender stated that he couldn’t be blamed as he was tired from fasting the whole day.
“He put the blame on the fast itself as opposed to taking responsibility for his actions,” he says in a raised tone, before adding, “But this begs us to ask the question: how different are the roads during the fasting hours in the Holy Month of Ramadan?
“Throughout the course of my career, I’ve noticed that the roads get a bit riskier during the fasting hours. Now, it’s important to understand the dynamics of this observation before jumping to conclusions.
The ROP official goes on to reveal how incidents can be time-dependent.
“During the morning hours, it’s a bit safer. People are focused and attentive on the roads, but this level dips as we get deeper into the fasting hours.
“I would say that recklessness grows to its peak as we move closer to iftar. This is because by then the driver would’ve fasted for a good 14 hours, and the lack of concentration can be higher when they’re rushing home to break their fast.
“This contributes to a lot of speeding offenses, fender-benders and, sometimes, more fatal accidents such as in the case of Hilal,” he adds.
No studies on road incident rates during Ramadan have been made, but a look back at NCSI’s stats reveal how there were 353 and 382 incidents during Ramadan in 2017 in May and June, and 253 and 254 incidents in May and June the following year.
These are incidentally higher – albeit marginally – than the other non-Ramadan months, thereby validating the ROP official’s admission.
Worryingly, these accidents also led to greater numbers of fatalities on the road – 47 and 79 in 2017 and 46 and 70 in 2018 – of which speeding, fatigue, and negligence were pegged as the causes of death in the accident reports revealed by the ROP official.
In an interview with Y, Ali al Barwani, the former CEO of the Oman Road Safety Association (ORSA) says, “Accident rates may have gone down by nearly 50 per cent across the country, which is great news – but we cannot take rest until we achieve a near zero-death road.
“No one should lose their life, loved one, or friend, in a car accident – that’s the target we’ve set here in the country. And while we’re inching towards that dream, we’re still witnessing a substantial number of accidents and deaths.
“I don’t want to say that the accident rates are increasing greatly during Ramadan when compared with the other months, but there are studies that show that human error caused by fatigue and speeding have caused a great deal of accidents here on the Sultanate’s roads.
“These two factors have been great contributors to incidents on the roads here. So, someone rushing home for iftar and speeding in the process naturally has a higher chance of causing a mistake while on the go than someone who is driving safer.
“This, coupled with fatigue that’s been caused by fasting, can result in something potentially fatal, and perhaps also involve someone who wasn’t meant to be there either,” he adds.
This is further emphasised by Dr. Andrew Joseph, a somnologist and professor leading studies in a top university in Oman.
“Ali is right,” he says. “Fatigue is among the main causes of road accidents in the country, but there’s another factor that I’d like to add in: insomnia.
“Insomnia, on any regular day, can be an absolute tormentor. It throws away your sleep cycle and can cause disruptions in life that you once never thought would happen.
“This extends to the roads too – an insomniac who drives is almost at par with someone who is driving under the influence of a narcotic with sedative effects or even alcohol.
“Currently, two-thirds of the patients visiting me here in my office are patients who are fasting and are new to the idea of insomnia. A great deal of patients only experience this during the month of Ramadan, as their eating and sleeping cycles take a great switch.
“This can cause their bodies to react in different ways – and insomnia is one among them. That said, the best way you can control this is by meditation if medication isn’t an option for you.
“Simple control of the body and mind can help you overcome this. And as Ali rightly pointed out, no one should ever lose their life in a car accident. To that, I would like to add, no one who has ever been suffering from sleep deprivation should ever be out on the road.
“Not only could you harm your life, but someone else’s precious life too.”
It’s with this mindset that the ROP and other road safety organisations conduct safety classes, events, and even release frequent tips to drivers through their social media platforms. However, whether it’s reaching the masses as intended is yet to be identified.
But, even as austere fines are implemented, and newer and more efficient speed cameras installed along the Sultan Qaboos Highway, there are several commuters who openly flout the law.
And with Oman’s speeding fines sitting among the lowest in the GCC, it’s little wonder that several continue to break speed limits. The starting price of a speeding fine in the country is RO10, while drivers in the UAE are known to pay up to RO40.
Ali and the members of the ORSA aren’t giving up on their efforts.
Offering tips to drivers, Ali advises how taking simple steps such as leaving earlier for home for iftar and time-management can save one from a potential fine or incident, and how it’s still important to heed the law even though you’re fasting.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘Better safe than sorry,’ and that would be the perfect adage to keep in mind here. That extra five or 10 minutes you leave early from work can potentially save your life.
“I’ve advocated this plenty before. If you’re not at your 100 per cent when driving, then it’s best to stop on the side of the road and take a break. Maybe that’ll involve breaking your fast while on the go, but it’s still a step you can take to protect your life.
“Ramadan isn’t an excuse to let go of the law of the land. If anything, it’s a period where we must be stricter in observing it,” he adds before hailing the work of the ROP and the government in helping build safer communities with their targeted road safety efforts.
“The key,” he says, “Is to make the most noise to be heard. And road safety has always received a positive response from the people – thus the decreased incidents and fatality rates.
“But where it all lines up is in how the ROP keeps the ground level safe – the drivers and the commuters – by simply keeping a stricter check on them during this Holy Month.
“It’s not an easy time to be out there. The temperatures are high and even the police forces are fasting – and it’s despite that they go out and help us to protect the people of Oman. To them, I’d like to say thank you,” he adds.
But stricter checks are hardly being conducted, asserts Mohammed al Bulushi, an advocate for road safety and an analyst with a government organisation in the Sultanate. Speaking to Y, he says: “It’s hard to remain objective about things when you’re a commuter yourself.
“Anybody who has come remotely close to the roads between, say, 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. will confirm how there’s an air of hastiness in the attitude of drivers.
“It’s unbelievable how many people cut you out from the right side of the track (undertaking), flash their headlamps and tailgate you, and engage in speed driving during those hours. It’s extremely hazardous to be out on the roads today.
He also recalls an instance of how a police patrol vehicle was tailgated by a civilian vehicle – but was let go during the time.
“It’s the duty of the police to curb such incidents from taking place. I think the nail in the coffin for me was when I saw the ROP move aside for the car that was speeding well beyond the limit, just because it was time for iftar.
“This, to me, is unacceptable. It’s their duty to keep an eye out for offenders. Today, the driver may have got home on time, but tomorrow, what if they get into a serious crash?” he asks in an agitated tone.
He’s right too, as several other commuters ascertain how the brief period before iftar can be a trap, especially on crowded highways.
Vijay Raman, an Indian expat says that he was one of the more recent victims – losing his car (as a total loss) to a speeding vehicle that slammed into the rear of his vehicle – just before the closing of iftar.
“It was an unfortunate situation, as the driver who slammed into my car was probably fasting and I do understand how it can be tough to concentrate after more than 10 hours of no eating or drinking.
“But it resulted in me losing my car. Thankfully, there was no one else in the back seat; and the ROP said that there’d have been fatalities if there were passengers in the rear.”
Today, Vijay lives to talk of the tale – one that he came out of relatively unscathed – but, the driver to the other vehicle remains in hospital, and at the time of publishing this article, he’s still reportedly in critical condition (as revealed by Vijay).
“May God bless him, and I hope that he can come out of this stronger. Insha’Allah. I have no hard feelings against him – I would like to see him back on his feet – that’s all. The look on his family’s face breaks me.”
This brings us back to Hilal’s father Rashid, who gives those in violation of Omani traffic laws a piece of advice. He says: “Ramadan is a time of peace, prayer, and spreading our love for one another.
“We cannot practice one thing at home or work, and then go on to do something completely opposite in a car. We all need to make the land we live in a safe space… our safe space.
“Today, my son lives in my heart when he should’ve been living like any other 29-year-old should have been. Maybe married and with children – but Allah has taken him into his home.
“As residents of this beautiful country, let’s all take a stand to promise to make the roads safer irrespective of whether it’s during Ramadan or not.
“Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly.”
*Name changed to protect identity.