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Mon 5 Sep 2011 04:38 PM

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The road to safety

Dubai transport agency's Ahmed Bahrozya on taxi drivers, traffic laws and the need for fairer systems

The road to safety

Dubai’s roads are arguably among the scariest places in the city. Characterised by angry taxi drivers, boy racers and scores of monstrous 4x4s, they are blamed for more deaths and accidents than anything else. A man working hard to change this is the CEO of the Roads and Transport Authority’s licensing department, Ahmed Bahrozyan. Sat behind his desk in the new RTA headquarters, he says that the biggest challenge for Dubai is its broad range of driving abilities.

“What we have to understand is that the UAE is a country of many nationalities, and that is a big challenge,” he says. “Sometimes people come from countries where there aren’t even any lanes. One thing we often get told is ‘this man drives like a crazy person, who gave him a licence’ but that’s like when somebody commits a crime saying ‘which school did he go to’.

“Yes we are responsible for teaching him how to drive, but once someone gets their licence, what they do is more of a police responsibility than the RTA’s.”

Taxi drivers, he says, are one of the biggest problem areas. Bombarded with complaints year after year about their poor driving skills, the RTA is continuing to take a strict approach to tests and the issuing of licences, and is in the process of ensuring that all professional drivers of taxis and buses, are given a good bill of health before they drive. As it stands, all professional drivers are issued with an annual driving permit rather than a ten-year licence, but are able to get this renewed without undergoing medical checks.

“We are working with the health authority to introduce a health check which becomes part of the requirements for a permit for professional drivers,” said Bahrozyan. “We trying to do it as an electronic system. At the moment, some drivers need health checks, others don’t, health checks can be from any clinic and it is not really organised that well. We want it to be more structured. The idea we are floating with the health authority is that a professional driver goes to one of their clinics, gets the health check done, they send us the results electronically, and we issue the permit based on the results we get from them. So you have a very robust electronic system.”

Drivers would be tested for any illnesses which would inhibit their ability to drive, he says. Though the list is far from complete, it is thought that conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy will prevent drivers from obtaining a permit. “It will basically include things that cause them [drivers] to lose control when they’re at the wheel. We are not experts in the health area, so we’re working with the health authority for them to define the risks from a health perspective, and decide which conditions just require a warning and which conditions mean people can’t become taxi drivers.”

The move, which Bahrozyan expects will be a welcomed by UAE residents and is expected to be implemented by the end of the year, will only apply to professional drivers. “When you start a system for the first time, you start fairly small and where the bigger risks are, so the bigger risks in my opinion are the professional drivers. The other area we are looking at, which unfortunately the law doesn’t cover, is older drivers.”

Dubai could look at something similar to the system in Australia, he says, where people of 65 years and older are required to have regular health checks, and those over 85 receive annual health checks.

Of course, health checks are not the only changes the RTA is planning for taxi drivers. Another new policy due to be introduced soon is a more flexible system for assessing taxi drivers’ ability before deciding on the amount of lessons they need. Bahrozyan says the idea, which has been met with a flurry of complaints by road users and taxi takers, is intended to create a fairer system. “The system we are looking at, though we have not decided if we are going to do it yet, will mean that when somebody comes from abroad, we do some kind of assessment test for them to start off with, and based on that decide whether they are ready to go straight for a test, or whether they need lessons and how many lessons they need. Right now, the number of lessons for taxi drivers depends on the number of years they’ve had a licence for.”

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Thus, those with less than two years’ experience are required to have 40 lessons, those who have held a licence for two to five years need 30 lessons and those who have had a license for more than five years have 20. The new system would mean that a good driver who has had less than two years experience would not necessarily be compelled to have 40 lessons. It would also mean that a bad driver, who has a licence for ten years, may be required to have more than 20 lessons.

“We feel this is the fairest system for everybody,” Bahrozyan said. “I think most countries have problems with taxi drivers not following traffic laws, but there is a lot of effort in the RTA to manage that.” He also reiterated that this would only affect drivers from countries whose driving is seen as below international standards. Most European countries, the US, Australia and South Africa, are exempt from having to take any lessons if they come to the UAE with a licence.

Young motorists are another important group for Bahrozyan. Recently, the RTA announced plans to allow individuals aged seventeen to start their driving lessons, in a bid to help young residents prepare to drive in time to go to university. Though some people have criticised the move, Bahrozyan is confident that this will not have any impact on the standards of driving.

“A senior official from the police some time ago proposed the idea that we allow people to start driving at seventeen. Now that was just an idea. I don’t think it was entertained by the MOI. So as of now the law still says that you need to be eighteen to obtain a driving licence. But there is no specific law which says when you are allowed to start learning how to drive.”

The plan he adds, would allow individuals aged seventeen and a half to begin lessons, but prevent them from taking their proper road tests until they are eighteen. This would also allow learner drivers to get their computer-based and recently introduced theory tests out of the way before they are 18. “The idea is that individuals can use the summer between high school and university to learn how to drive. We are still putting the processes in place to allow this new order to be implemented.”

The new rule would not change the minimum number of lessons each learner takes, which is 40 lessons, the equivalent of around 20 hours of training. “If you look at countries around the world, there are countries where people can start learning when they are sixteen. I don’t think allowing people to learn to how to drive six months before they are eighteen is going to make much of a difference [to road safety]. At the end of the day it is more about the quality of the learning.”

This can be improved he says, by introducing a novice driver’s programme. “Unfortunately the UAE right now, and I say unfortunately because I really believe it is something we need to work on, doesn’t have a novice drivers programme like most advanced countries do, where in the first three years of obtaining a driving licence there are restrictions on new drivers which are normally reduced year after year.” Such a system, he says, would mean new motorists would face restrictions on driving under certain weather conditions, in certain high powered cars, on driving with a certain number of peers in the car, and on alcohol consumption. For such a system to be effective in Dubai, Bahrozyan says it would need to be introduced at the federal level, and apply to all the emirates. For some time, the RTA has been lobbying the UAE government to introduce such a measure, but as yet nothing has changed. Bahrozyan says the RTA is currently in the process of revising its recommendations, and in the meantime, plans to look at the things it can do at an emirate level.

“Like most countries, whenever things need to be done at federal level they take time, it is not within our control, so we can’t say when it will happen. But what we are doing in Dubai, is looking at restrictions we can impose which may not be that complicated and which we can enforce quite quickly. Simple things like requiring students to undergo lectures on safety — those are easy to implement and don’t have to be at the federal level. So we would only renew a licence if drivers brought their certificate from the driving centre to say they have actually attended certain lectures. We’ll probably look at doing this in 2012.”

Further tests, however, are a no-no, at least for now. After only recently introducing the theory or “knowledge test”, Bahrozyan does not want to overwhelm new drivers with too much at once.

“One of the other things we are definitely introducing in 2012 is a unified training curriculum, so we’re standardising training across all of the five driving centres in Dubai. Right now all of them teach the skills that are required, but the structure of teaching is very different from institute to institute.” Training would be uniform, he says, based on two principles. The first: that all students start with the easy things and then move on to more complicated driving skills, and the second: that learners are exposed to as many driving conditions during training as they are on the road. Highway driving would also become part of the curriculum. “This will be next year, around the middle of the year,” he says. “The curriculum is ready, the challenge is going to be working with the institutes to actually enforce the curriculum.”

Perhaps the only worry for Bahrozyan is the impact of changes in fines. Earlier this month, the Dubai Police chief Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim announced plans to slash traffic fines on his Twitter account. Answering his followers, he said there would be a reduction in the cost of fines for a limited period where law breakers settled their fines with the police in full. Bahrozyan believes that a reduction in fines will encourage people to speed more.

“My argument would be, if you’re worried about paying fines, don’t speed,” he says. “Abu Dhabi a few months ago issued an order which halved or reduced the traffic fines, so a fine which was AED600 went down to AED300, and there were a lot of rumours about it happening [in Dubai]. The way [they are] looking at it is that people are being burdened a lot with fines and in this tough climate they are not able to pay them.”

That said, he maintains that there must be someone doing something right, since the standard of driving in the UAE has most definitely improved in recent years.

“There is no doubt that driving standards are improving in the UAE,” he says.  “There is definitely room for improvement, we have a lot of work to do, but the road safety record of Dubai and the UAE in general has gone in the right direction over the last few years, and road deaths and road-related accidents have decreased a lot. I think it’s a combination of the licensing agency’s efforts, different authorities in the RTA and the police.”

In an effort to continue this trend, Bahrozyan says he also plans on adding to the assessments required of driving instructors, to ensure they know how to teach, not just to drive. This, in addition to a unified curriculum, a novice drivers programme and health checks for professional drivers, will help boost standards further.

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Suzannah Povey 8 years ago

The biggest traffic related danger in the UAE is quite simply the distance between cars when driving at speed.

A simple, but hard hitting TV and Radio ad campaign funded by the government could save thousands of lives on the UAE's terrifying roads.