Add to Technorati Favorites expat Abu Dhabi Dispatches: The Abu Dhabi 500

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Abu Dhabi 500

One of the biggest culture shocks I've had since moving here is the apalling driving techniques. The U.A.E. is inhabited by drivers from all over the world who no doubt imported their homeland's worst driving habits along with the household goods. Filipinos, Pakistanis and Indians make up the majority of drivers on the road. These are not regions known for highway civility and when mixed together adds up to sum much more terrible than it's parts. I am trying to be culturally sensitive here but I can't help noticing a lack of spatial awareness of these drivers. Impossible lane changes, tailgating, left turns from the right lane and generally an attitude that they are the only ones using the road at the time. This unpredictability instills a very high "Pucker Factor" in "yours truly".

Then there are the local citizens. They only make up 20% of the population, but they cause their own set of challenges. Thirty-five years ago when the U.A.E. became a country, cars were rare and roads were rarer. Camels were the preferred form of transportation and the locals were accustomed to the slow 5-6 MPH of the animal's gait. Well, with the massive oil income in the intervening years, most of the locals became insanely rich and discovered automobiles could become entertaining playthings. Not just any automobiles but expensive, powerful machines capable of very high speeds. Believe me when I say that one learns very quickly to stay out of the fast lanes as one of these Mario Andretti wannabes will appear in your rear-view mirror VERY quickly and they are NOT slowing down! The worst are the Range Rovers and the Toyota Prado SUV's (always white in color). The only times I see these types of vehicles going slower than 200KPH is when they are wrapped around a date palm or a crumpled mass of smoldering metal at the base of a bridge abuttment. Just like teenage boys with the keys to Daddy's Porsche and a fifth of whiskey.

Where is law enforcement in all of this? Well they do show up at the accident scenes but are otherwise mostly absent. "Speed enforcement" is done with hidden radar/cameras along the highway that randomly snap photos of any cars going over the speed limit. You won't know if this has happened to you unless you go to the police website and enter your license number to access your record. Most motorists find out when they have been nailed when they are refused their annual registration, the offenses have to be paid up first or you walk. This system is obviously more effective as a revenue enhancement tool than speed enforcement. A squad of Florida Highway Patrol units could make a killing here, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. 

Being a Muslim country, driving with ANY alcohol in your system is strictly forbidden and could be grounds for deportation. So I have had to --ahem-- change my habits and make use of alternate means of transport when adult beverages are in store for the evening.

Recently in the interest of public safety, the U.A.E. instituted a violation points system much like the U.S. has where you accrue points against your license for each violation. I have a copy of the policy and it seems...well...inconsistent in places. For example, if you get caught driving your car without tags, you are subject to 24 points and your is vehicle impounded for 60 days. Further down the list is the offense of "causing the death of others" for which you will be assessed 12 points and your car will be confiscated for 30 days. Does anyone else see a problem here?

The multilane intercity highways are excellent. Smooth spacious and crack/pothole free, they would shame many of the U.S. interstates. There seems too many of them considering the small size of the country. Once you get away from the metro areas, you often find yourself all alone on an 8 lane superhighway to nowhere. There is a lot to be said for having almost unlimited money for infrastructure. The U.A.E is big on infrastructure and they do it well.

In Abu Dhabi City however, it is a different story. As I said earlier, it is on an island with finite space. The traffic density rivals Manhattan and it is a real chore to drive there with all the maniacs concentrated in a small space. It seems like just about every weekend I have to go there to get something sorted out or do a beer run and I dread it. I have defined the length of a nano-second as from the time a traffic light turns green to when the idiot behind you starts honking his horn. Road rage is rare though, I guess everyone learns to deal with the frustration . Also, deportation is a definate possibility if one causes a public scene. You can get into legal trouble if you flip another driver the "bird" especially a local. 

Pedestrians downtown are another nuisance and there are alot of them as most "Guest Workers" cannot afford their own wheels. Designated crosswalks are a foreign concept and most just cross the road when and where the mood strikes them, often in groups, seemingly pursuing their own personal high-stakes game of Frogger. What the hell, so if I hit one it's only 12 points and 30 days car impound, but you won't catch me driving without a tag, that's much more serious according to the law.

So I've made it downtown with sweaty palms and elevated heartbeat. Now the fun really begins. finding a place to park.  Almost every 80 square feet of empty real estate downtown is occupied by a car. Off the main streets are two lane streets (like alleys) where everyone parks. These streets usually have space for parallel or nose-in parking on the side and when they get full people park in the middle of the street. That's right--they park in-line,  bumper-to-bumper right over the centerline. This not only makes it difficult for thru traffic it causes problems for the cars parked on the side as there is little room to back out. Finding a parking spot can make your whole day.

Unfortunately, I find my own driving habits evolving to fit my new environment and not in a good way. I now ignore stop signs, lane divider lines, speed limit signs and safe following distances. I can use my horn as an expressive communication medium. I will have to be careful when driving back in the States to remember that traffic rules were NOT made to be broken. Most importantly, I have discovered the One Rule that is essential to driving in Abu Dhabi: You can do the most incredibly stupid crap out on the road but all is forgiven by your fellow motorists if you have your emergency flashers on when you do it!   

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