Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Road Surprises

There is a common road sign in Abu Dhabi that pretty much sums up the average driving experience: Beware of Road Surprises.

I’ve been living in Abu Dhabi for nearly a year and I still haven’t had the courage to convert my South African drivers license into a UAE one. It is not because I have to do a retest – I don’t. It is simply because driving in Abu Dhabi is a rather challenging task.

An important first step is to remember is that they drive on the wrong side of the road. In other words, on the right. And for people like me, this takes some getting used to. Especially when going around traffic circles – or what are known here as roundabouts.

Welkom, that little dorpie in the Free State, is famous for its traffic circles. It has lots of them. But not nearly as many as Abu Dhabi. And the Abu Dhabi versions are not tiny little things either. Great big hulking things with giant teapots on them. Or fountains. Or both. With at least six roads leading on or off it. And it is three lanes wide.

And of course, like in South Africa, nobody actually knows how to use a traffic circle.

And considering that everyone drives at Mach 3, it can be a near-death experience. You can in fact, have this near-death experience at least four times before getting to your exit. You will probably have been nearly hit by at least one or more of the following: a bus, a truck, a taxi, a 4x4, yet another taxi, and when near the Mina Port area, a truck with sheep on.

Speeding appears to be crucial in Abu Dhabi. No one is ever in a hurry in Abu Dhabi normally, but once in a car, the faster the better. There are speed limits, but many drivers consider these to more of a guideline than a rule.

Not that there aren’t those nifty little cameras that take your picture. There are. Lots of them. But its easy to forget about them, as you don’t get your fine straight away. Your tickets accumulate and you have to pay them all at once when you pay your registration fees each year.

Part of the speed issue is that the majority of cars are new. New cars like going fast. Especially when they are, generally speaking, top of the range automobiles.

Image is everything when driving. A car older than a year is passé. It needs to be new. So much so that people will leave the plastic coverings on the seats and the factory label on the front windscreen for as long as possible. So it appears that it was just collected.

And cars need to be fully equipped too. When we were first shopping around for cars, we decided that we wanted as far as possible, a “full house” of features: aircon, central locking, ABS, airbags, electric windows, CD player.

When chatting to a very friendly salesman, he laughingly told us that we were requesting a “standard” full house. He said that in Abu Dhabi, “full house” was quite a bit more extensive, especially on your top range MPVs and 4x4’s. Your car would not be complete without built-in DVD players and screens (with PS2 facilities for the kids in the back), a fridge, GPS and whatever other gadget was the flavour of the month.

Yet despite the desperation to have the car look as good as possible, accidents are incredibly common. Apparently the UAE has the highest per capita accident rate of anywhere in the world.

And an accident here requires the presence of the police. Always. No matter if it’s a simple bumper bashing or a major collision. You are not allowed to move your car unless the police have written a report – on scene. Which of course, adds to the traffic!

Added to this is the combined bad driving habits of just about every country in the world, and you may just start to get the picture. And I haven’t even mentioned the wild lane changing, random braking, window tinting, the intricacies of parking, and the whole issue of blood money, insurance and camels.

I think I’ll stick to being a passenger for now.

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