Take-no-prisoners attitude and nerves of steel driving in Dubai


DUBAI — It takes a certain mindset to drive in Dubai: a take-no-prisoners attitude coupled with nerves of steel. This Gulf city, which boasts stunning wealth and spectacular skyscrapers, is also home to an alarmingly large number of suicidal drivers, and one of them was at the wheel of my taxi as we careened off a Dubai highway and onto a side road. “It is very safe to drive,” said Mohammad as he ignored a stop sign in a dusty construction area and flung us onto a mercifully quiet roundabout. Asked whether he had been in many accidents, he replied: “Never. But I hit somebody, maybe one or two times, not serious.” Apparently neither incident was bad enough to merit attention from either the police or his cab company, a fact that has only emboldened his Formula One instincts. Dubai was last year named the most congested city in the Middle East, in a study which found commuters spend nearly two hours in their cars each day, often in heavy traffic. Some experts say the congestion that jams the streets could dent the city’s aspirations to extend its role from star of the wealthy Gulf region into global business hub. “If worse comes to worst, some people could think to transfer businesses to neighboring emirates or areas which are more open,” said Conrad Egbert, news editor of Construction Week, who tracks infrastructure developments in the emirate. A wealthy regional tourism and trade center’s, whose population has virtually doubled over the past decade to around 1.5 million, Dubai is spending billions of dollars to develop a metro system and enhance its bus network. In recent days, ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum approved a budget of 1.8 billion dirhams (US$490.2 million) to build two new highways.

SURVIVAL TIPS For now, some tips: a driver who lingers for even a split-second when traffic lights go green is obviously asleep, so hit the horn to wake him up. Besides the accelerator, the horn is a Dubai driver’s best friend. Many drivers treat posted speed limits as a mild suggestion, glaring at those who obey the rules or blasting their horns contemptuously at true slow pokes. And do not be fooled into thinking roads have only paved lanes: the sandy shoulders on either side are fair game to get out of a pinch. Of course, even off-roading across corners to reach another street will not help much, given the volume of traffic. I saw one ambitious driver, fed up with standstill traffic on a particularly narrow street, attempt a U-turn. He inched back and forth to get his car perpendicular to the traffic, at which point a truck squeezed from behind into the minuscule space he had vacated, piling on the pressure for him to complete the manoeuvre.

Unfazed, he coolly finished the turn and sped off. Police are cracking down on reckless driving. The government amended the federal law on traffic violations this year, creating stiffer penalties for violations like racing. And there is a heavy human toll. The newspapers say one person is injured on the roads every two hours and there is a fatality every 15 hours. “Every day, three or four accidents is compulsory,” said Ilyas, another Dubai taxi driver. “There is no driving judgment.”