Olivia Bergen | NYU Abu Dhabi 2015
With one of the world’s highest road traffic accident rates relative to population, road safety has become a critical public health challenge in the United Arab Emirates. The current annual fatality rate is 12.7 per 100,000 people, equating to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries each year. Strategies for reducing accidents are being continuously implemented and evaluated throughout the UAE, including successful behavior campaigns and increased policing, but policies can still be strengthened to protect road users.
Traffic police in Fujairah, in association with a daily newspaper Al Ittihad, reported at the end of 2012 that in a study period from 2006 to 2011, 5,514 people died on the roads, averaging two deaths per day in the Emirates. Abu Dhabi was the largest contributor to national totals, the site of 38% of all the fatal accidents in the country. In total, 51,200 accidents were on the police record in the six- year period, in which 63,406 people were injured. Road accident incidences have been declining since a recent peak in 2008, in part due to intensified road patrols, a greater number of speed cameras, awareness campaigns, and stricter penalties for traffic violations. Traffic police across the UAE issue an average of 9,500 penalties per day to violators, most frequently for speed offenses. Other common violations include ignoring red signals, recklessness and negligence, and failure to leave sufficient distance between vehicles.
In early March 2013, the Abu Dhabi Police Traffic and Patrol Directorate announced that despite having 6% more vehicles and 8% more licensed drivers on the road, traffic accidents had decreased by 10% since the previous year. Fatal accidents had decreased by 19%. The downward trend of accidents and fatalities in the last four years has been promising, and is in no small part the result of government initiatives.
Abu Dhabi’s Traffic and Patrols Directorate is executing a comprehensive traffic procedures plan, titled the Abu Dhabi Integrated Plan, which focuses on traffic control, educational campaigns, road engineering development, rapid emergency response, and evaluation of road safety. The directorate’s goal is to reduce fatalities by at least four percent annually, reaching zero fatalities by 2030—“Zero Vision”. In the initiative’s first three years, they have already dropped by 34%.
Awareness programs to encourage safe driving behavior emphasize seatbelt use, speed reduction, safe road crossing, and observance of red lights. In 2012, the directorate carried out 766 lectures and events reaching over 63,000 people. Whether such outreach is sustainable, as well as whether it is reaching the road users who most need such messages, is indeterminate. However, it is clear that some combination of this communication and tightened enforcement of violations has successfully curbed accidents.
Traffic safety worldwide is such a prominent health concern that in 2009, the United Nations’ World Health Organization declared a “Decade of Action” around reducing fatalities. WHO hopes that by 2020, initiatives in countries around the world might reduce the current 1.3 million annual deaths by 50%. Traffic accidents kill more people around the world than malaria, and for people aged 5-29 this is the leading cause of death. Annually, they result in a worldwide economic loss of USD 520 billion, a result of many factors including health andemergency services cost, lost productivity, and infrastructure damage. WHO’s 2013 Global Status Report on Road Safety emphasizes the importance of policies on five key risk factors – speed, drunk driving, motorcycle helmets, seat belts, and child restraints. Safe mobility for pedestrians and cyclists is also essential as automotive vehicles share road space with alternative transport in greater numbers.
Seat belt use is an essential factor in reducing the rate of injury and death on the roads. While there is a national seat belt law in the Emirates, compliance is not widespread, especially among UAE nationals. Regarding child safety restraints, there are no laws at all, resulting in low rates of use. The main cause of death for UAE children under 14 is fatal injury, 63% being traffic related, indicating a major gap to be closed in the goal of reducing deaths and injuries. Awareness campaigns such as the Integrated Plan should continue encouraging seat belt and child safety restraint use, while legislation should be instituted that requires child restraints up to a given age.
Considering 29% of traffic fatalities are pedestrians, the UAE must also creatively consider how to better protect pedestrians.
The design of Emirati cities does not foster safe or convenient walking routes. Meanwhile, drivers rarely yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. The burden of safe passage through the city lies completely on pedestrians, ignoring the role of drivers and of engineers who plan the road design. Much of the UAE will be built up in the coming decades, and it may be an important priority for the nation to engineer safer walking routes. For the time being, modification of driver behavior should focus on reducing speeding and reckless behavior, and increasing awareness to prevent pedestrian collisions.
There have been improvements to be admired in the condition of the UAE’s road safety in the past few years, and the seriousness with which the government takes traffic problems is heartening. The continuation of successful coordination plans and road policing will be essential to continuing the decreasing trend of accidents and fatalities. In order to approach Zero Vision, however, Abu Dhabi and the UAE must more closely examine driving culture, encourage greater use of safety devices, and take action to protect pedestrians in road design and traffic laws. With each new change toward the goal of greater road safety, the Emirates become a happier and healthier place to live.