Combatting Road Trauma in the United Arab Emirates

Between 2005 and 2008 I taught business and computing at a women’s college in the United Arab Emirates. My students were all Emirati (UAE Nationals) women who had, by Western standards, led very sheltered lives.

Their knowledge in the simple things we take for granted was non-existent, incorrect, or limited. For example, few knew how a credit card system worked. They had no knowledge of workplace health and safety, environmental concerns, or could comprehend how it was possible for Western women to have children out of wedlock. The latter was haram (forbidden) in their culture.

Teaching them was a delight. They were like sponges, ready to suck in every bit of information they could and they undoubtedly had a good sense of humour. They were very respectful, treating me with the respect of a father figure since I was much older than any of them and of course, male.

One of the final year subjects was Project Management to which there were two levels. During level one, they project managed the planning, organisation, operation, and evaluation of a fete with numerous local business people attending to sell their goods to the students, teachers, and their female family members. This always attained excellent educational outcomes because of the breadth of activities that could be included.

I remember racking my brains for their final Project Management activity and decided to give them a road safety project because road deaths were very high in the UAE and little was being done by way of prevention. Sheik Zayed Road in Dubai was identified as the most dangerous road on earth with a death every 30 hours and many more non-fatal, injury incidents.

The standard of main roads within the UAE, was at the time, better than I had seen in Australia or elsewhere, so the deaths came down largely to driver behaviour and lack of what should have been common safety practices like tying down heavy loads to the back of trucks. More than a few had slipped off crushing cars and their occupants at roundabouts.

As an ex-Police Officer and specialist traffic accident investigator before I began my teaching career, I was alarmed at the sight of children standing on their mothers’ laps in the front of vehicles, failure to wear seat belts, to indicate when turning, excessive speed in densely populated streets and so on. It was even common practice for taxi drivers to cut seat belts out of their new taxis because they believed it was offensive to Allah their protector, to think they had to take measures to protect themselves.

Despite the obvious cultural differences, I decided to give them a Road Safety Project and the formal aims were to:

1. Learn how to scope, plan, implement, manage and evaluate a project

2. Produce an information strategy to promote awareness of safe driving and road safety

The hidden curriculum (informal aim) was to create awareness within students with the hope they would influence their friends and family members to practise safe driving and related habits. If I could cause children to be placed in suitable child restraints rather than standing on their mother’s knee, something good would eventuate.

I had a tough job convincing my supervisor that a road safety topic was relevant to the business discipline. I argued that the skills used in project management are universal across any field of study. Eventually, she acceded to my request although reluctantly, and the project went ahead.

Young ladies in the UAE are very creative and respond well to hands-on activities. Thus, this project was designed with that in mind.

As a group, the students and I designed a strategy that included a range of wall posters, A4 folded brochures and other media that was to be distributed across their suburbs and perhaps handed out at major shopping malls as drivers entered or exited.

To get to the media stage, students had to research road safety facts and figures. We managed to locate numerous road safety video clips from the United Kingdom, United States and Australia that covered every topic imagineable. They loved watching the video clips and took in the messages therein.

Each video clip had an important message: don’t drink and drive (not a problem in the UAE where most people don’t drink), wear seatbelts, don’t speed, maintain a mechanically sound vehicle, adjust your mirrors, put children in approved restraint seats or harnesses, don’t overload your vehicle (a chronic challenge in the UAE), and much more including slow down when approaching camels on the road.

All this information complemented the larger picture of planning, organising, delivering and evaluating their project and by the end, we had a road safety product to be proud of complete with a cornucopia of well designed, attractive posters and flyers.

One of the students had a relative who was a senior officer within the Dubai Police Department and he and a couple of his colleagues decided to pay our college a visit to enquire about our project. The spoke to me and my students and were delighted with the outcomes we had achieved that nobody had done before in the UAE. They said they would recommend the national adoption of our Road Safety Campaign and congratulated us on a job well done.

My supervisor was given a great deal of kudos for allowing me to run the project and everyone seemed pleased. The project that had some months earlier been queried as having little to do with business, was now popular and influencing hearts and minds if nothing else.

It was only a few months later that my contract expired and I decided to return to Australia.

On return to the UAE two years later for a holiday, I did notice that more people seemed to be wearing seat belts, but I never thought to enquire regarding the overall traffic incident statistics so I have no idea whether our project was in fact adopted and if so, whether it made any difference. I sincerely hope so.

Seeing people killed and injured in traffic incidents that were entirely preventable was one of the least heartening aspects of my career in policing.