Sunday, September 23, 2012

Jeddah's 'Lord of the Flies' driving habits

The column was originally published in Arab news
In 2010, Saudi Arabia’s traffic department came out with a new program called “Salamati” that would improve traffic safety with the addition of 3,000 new traffic cops and 230 senior officers.
“Saher”, an automated traffic control and management system to regulate traffic conditions, also came along.
I commend traffic officials for making an effort to curb the guerrilla warfare that passes for driving in Saudi Arabia. And maybe the Saher program is generating plenty of revenue from traffic fines to fill the traffic department’s coffers, but I got to say that it doesn’t look like there has been much of an impact on the streets.
Saudi Arabia's streets

Since leaving Saudi Arabia in 2007, I studied in the United Kingdom and vacationed in the United States. I learned to drive and I quickly became spoiled.
I was spoiled for the simple reason that I lived and visited countries that had a healthy respect for traffic safety and traffic laws. You know, those minor things like stopping at traffic lights, signaling to change lanes, turning left from the left-hand lane. People observed the speed limit. They waved their appreciation when you allowed them to pass. When I took driving lessons in the UK and US, drivers displayed patience and courtesy as I navigated unfamiliar streets.
Since I don’t drive in Saudi Arabia, I, like most women, am busy on the telephone in the backseat of the car not paying a lot of attention to my surroundings. Now that I have returned, I have a new sense of what my country has become.
I was struck some years ago when I read a report that the safety of a country’s national air carrier is best evaluated by the country’s attention to traffic safety and traffic laws. That doesn’t bode well for the Kingdom’s airlines since I would wager that Saudi Arabia operates under the worst traffic conditions of any country.
Over the past 20 years, Saudi traffic officials estimated that 4 million traffic accidents killed 86,000 people and injured more than 610,000. A study by the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology predicts that the way things are going, traffic accidents will exceed 4 million annually by 2030.
It used to be that we could blame the horrendous driving in Jeddah on expats imported with no driving skills and hired to drive taxis. But now Saudis seemed to have adopted some of the worst driving habits I’ve ever seen. Speeding, dangerous lane changing, double-parking and blocking right-hand lanes, turning left or right from the far outside lanes. Having the kids ignore their seatbelts and dangle themselves outside car windows. And hopping over medians in four-wheel-drive vehicles to avoid traffic jams. Incredibly dangerous driving. Every car has damage as if it were some badge of honor indicating that you survived the day in Jeddah traffic.
This is not news, of course, and I can be accused of beating a dead horse. But think about this. When will the time come when we behave responsibly and follow traffic laws? I am guessing that “never” in my lifetime is not too extreme.
We know from the Salamati and Saher programs that the powers that be recognize that people are needlessly dying because of our dangerous driving habits. How to solve that? Well, it would require every single driver in Saudi Arabia taking a new and rigid driving test before being issued a driver’s license.
It would take hiring thousands of new traffic officers — beyond the 3,000 already added to the ranks — to enforce traffic laws. It would take Saudis to respect the authority of a traffic officer. It would take not hiring expats as drivers without driving experience. It would take new traffic signals, and proper and well lighted traffic signage.
It would require an iron fist from the Jeddah municipality and traffic department to enforce existing laws and implement new ones. But ultimately, it would mean a dramatic change in the mindset of Saudi and expat drivers to do what comes natural to them. Drive like crazed maniacs.
Let’s face it. Driving in Saudi Arabia is the law of the jungle. A survival of the fittest. Lord of the Flies on wheels. The weak are crushed by the most aggressive, rudest drivers on the planet.
Yet most Saudis are aware of this absurd behavior. Many Saudis have been to the West, are licensed to drive there, and even marvel and appreciate the wide open road and the relatively stress-free environment most roads offer outside urban areas. And for those who have not been to the West, television has certainly taught us that despite magnificent car crashes in movies, even villains observe traffic laws.
If Saudis are ever going to be serious about changing the way we drive cars and settle down to observe at least a modicum of driving civility and courtesy, they have a tough road ahead of them.
The pessimist in me says it is too late for this generation of drivers. We have made our bed and will lie in it. But I hope I am wrong and there is the political will among those in charge to begin changing the way we think when we get behind the wheel so we can preserve the lives of the next generation.


Anonymous said...

Actually, if you look at second hand cars. A car driven by a Saudi will fetch a much lower price than if in an expat drove it. Why? expat drivers get into fewer collisions. The more collisions the lower the price of the car. I agree, taxi drivers are some of the worst but gone are the days when we could blame road traffic accident on foreigners. We need to own up to our own deeds.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

I wrote about this in Oman a while back, but as someone who's lived in KSA for several years too, I can only agree that the situation is just the same.

You're right to make the point that it's a matter of culture. Imposing penalties alone is not effective, because it causes an outcry without improving driving skills. The basic problem is that nobody knows how to drive. Before you can have enforcement, you need a highway code, a police service who know how to drive, and licensed and examined driving instructors.