The numbers speak for themselves. In the first half of 2015, Abu Dhabi Police issued 33,844 fines for failing to wear a seatbelt, Dubai Police issued 107,908 and Sharjah Police issued 16,654. In 2014, Dubai Police issued 67,483 fines for seatbelt violations.
This is despite the overwhelming evidence that those who don’t wear a seatbelt in the front or back seats risk their lives as well as those of others.
So why do so many people refuse to obey a law that is intended to be life-saving and what can be done to change this?
Gulf News spoke with officials, residents, and mental experts to understand the issue.
Lack of realisation
Colonel Jamal Al Bannai, Acting Director of Dubai Traffic Police, said the problem is that some people are still not convinced that the seatbelt is important.
“If the person is convinced as a principle [that seatbelts are an important safety device and therefore uses it] and not because it’s the law or in the fear that he will be fined, they would wear it because they know it is the right thing to do.”
After all, car manufacturers and safety experts would not have installed seatbelts if they were not important, Col Al Bannai said. “Seatbelts prevent people from hitting the dashboard in case of an accident, and also prevent people from being thrown out of the vehicle [during an impact or collision].”
While the department does not have statistics of injuries or deaths in accidents caused due to the failure to wear seatbelts, Col Al Bannai said such injuries are usually severe, “as the majority of the time, [the passengers] fly out of the vehicle.”
He says he cannot emphasise enough the need to wear the seatbelt whilst in a moving car. People, said Col. Al Bannai, should wear seatbelts at all times, not just while travelling on highways.
In Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah the fine for violating the seatbelt rule is Dh400 and the violator is penalised with four black points.
If a child under 10 years of age sits in the front seat, a fine of Dh400 and four traffic points will be slapped on the guardian. Children should be seated in the back and babies should be buckled up in child-safety seats facing the rear of the car.
Colonel Mohammad Al Ketbi, Acting Head of the Traffic and Patrols Directorate, also urged parents to refuse to allow children under the age of 10 to sit in the front seat as this puts their lives at risk in the case of an accident.
Al Ketbi said that research shows that wearing a seatbelt dramatically decreases the risk of major injuries and deaths, adding that those protected by a seatbelt are also less likely to be thrown out of a vehicle in a collision.
In an earlier report in Gulf News, Major General Mohammad Said Al Zafein, Assistant to the Dubai Police Chief, explained that “when an accident happens, the car stops but the passengers’ bodies continue to move forward at the same speed that the vehicle was moving. So, for example, if the vehicle was travelling at 100km/h before the accident, the passenger will be hurled with a force of between 1,000kg to 1,500kg if not wearing a seat belt [ten times the speed of the vehicle] which can cause death or injury.”
Awareness programmes in schools
According to Col Al Bannai, the seatbelt law is not restricted to front seat passengers. “What many people do not know is that the traffic law does not specify that the driver or the front seat passengers are the only ones required to wear a seatbelt. The law allows us to fine everyone, but we do not, as there needs to be more awareness about wearing seatbelts in the back seat.”
Col Al Bannai said that they are now focusing on educating children, starting from kindergarten. “We have built a number of traffic parks in schools to teach children about traffic rules and safety, including the importance of wearing the seatbelt.
“We are hoping that if a child sees one of his parents not wearing the seatbelt, he would tell them, and the parent would feel obliged to put it on as he would not want to teach his child a bad habit,” he said.
What makes people ignore basic precautions that can potentially save their lives?
Two psychological experts decode the minds of people who wilfully disobey the law and put their lives in danger.
Dr El Zein Omara, consultant psychiatrist at Al Noor Hospital Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News that he believes there are a number of reasons why people tend not to wear seatbelts in the region. “It is cultural, and it can also be psychological,” he said. “It’s cultural in the sense that there isn’t enough discipline.”
However, despite the cultural aspect, there are other reasons why people wilfully ignore seatbelt regulations. Some of these disorders include defiant disorder, impulse control disorder and depression. Dr Omara describes the conditions:
Individuals with this disorder want to defy rules [which imply order]. For example, traffic lights are the operating principle of traffic organisation and flow. They imply an order of how things should work. So individuals with defiance disorder will deliberately go through a red light. They know they can be fined for their action but they still go ahead and do it.”
Impulse control disorder
This is a disorder propelled by failure to reduce the temptation or a urge that might result in harm to themselves or to others. This condition pushes a person into doing things that can be harmful. So though he knows he can be caught by the police for not wearing a seatbelt, he will still not wear it.
Depression often leads a person into ignoring the consequences of a harmful decision. It’s a ‘I-don’t-care-anymore’ state of mind. These people also display signs of suicidal behaviour. You see them driving at 200km/h without a seatbelt.
Dr Omara also points to the common occurence of children not wearing seatbelts. “If you are not disciplined in the house, you will not be disciplined in the car,” he says.
“If children learn early on that they should sit in the back seat and wear a seatbelt, they will do it without creating problems for their parents. But if they are not taught this discipline, you will see them insisting on sitting in the front seat and taking their seatbelts off in the back, and the parents will not be able to control them.
“Awareness and education should be increased for families, in schools, and in social media,” Dr Omara said. “Awareness should not be seasonal, it should be continuous, especially for families.”
Education, awareness can change attitude
Dr Shazya Rashid Lakadawala, acting head of psychology at Rashid Hospital in Dubai, echoes Dr Omara’s views on the importance of education and awareness.
“If you are not made aware [of the benefits of] knowing a particular [good] behaviour, it is difficult then to implement that behaviour,” she said.
Not wearing a seatbelt has been adopted culturally in the region. “This is what we were taught — it’s OK if you don’t wear a seatbelt.”
In her opinion, the syndrome then results in people coming up with excuses for their behaviour, such as ‘I can’t breathe when I have a seatbelt on’, or ‘I never wear a seatbelt, it’s fine’.
Why is the UAE particularly guilty when it comes to flouting the seatbelt rule? After all, it has similarly stringent laws as do other countries. Why do people in those countries obey the law while people [here] flout the rules?
Dr Shazya believes the main reason is a lack of awareness from childhood about the importance of wearing seatbelts.
“It is mostly due to a lack of awareness, and that is not something that can be addressed [quickly]. It’s an ongoing effort. If awareness is linked to learning, it will be practical,” she said.
At a click: Lives lost and saved
A life ending too soon
Jahir Husen lost his friend and colleague, Swaminathan, in a vehicle accident last year. Swaminathan was a 26-year-old quality controller from India, who travelled daily from his residence in the Madinat Zayed area of Abu Dhabi to his office by company car.
On the morning of January 20, 2015, a morning like any other, Swami got into the back seat of the company pick-up and headed to work. On the way, the vehicle’s tyre burst and caused the vehicle to roll over.
Swami was not wearing his seatbelt.
Swaminathan with the young son he left behind.
“The door flew open as the pick-up went into a spin, and Swaminathan was thrown out of the vehicle. When the vehicle came to a stop, it had him pinned between its body and the tarmac. Swaminathan died on the spot,” Jahir said.
He still can’t believe his friend is gone. “We celebrated New Year together, but 20 days later, he was gone, just like that. I will remember that day forever,” said Jahir, 35, a safety trainer. He has always believed in the importance of wearing the seatbelt.
His friend’s death has only strenghtened his belief and now he actively campaigns for this cause amongst his friends and colleagues. “The government would not make a law for seatbelts just to give people a hard time,” said Jahir. “Clearly, it is there to protect the public.”
Swaminanthan supported his family — a wife and a child — back home in India. “Now they are struggling to make ends meet. His wife is trying to find a job in the UAE to support herself and her child. It is such a sad story,” Jahir said.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, in India or UAE or elsewhere. Whether you are sitting in the front or in the rear seat, wearing a seatbelt is not an option,” he said.
Saved by the seatbelt
Layla, a 25-year-old Emirati [name changed to protect her identity] has had a first-hand experience of how a seatbelt can save a life.
In March 2015, Layla had a car accident. “Had I not been wearing my seatbelt, I would have been dead. Anyone who saw the state of the car would have concluded that the driver must be dead,” she recalled of that day. She was driving during rush hour on Shaikh Zayed Road when a moment of distraction led her to ram her Mercedes into the back of a bus. “I went into extreme shock. My responses froze,” she said of her experience. So severe was her shock that she was not able to call the emergency service for help.
A motorist behind her came to her rescue and made the necessary calls.
Layla’s car was so badly damaged that it was written-off. “My brother rushed to the scene and went white in the face when he saw me. He kept looking at the car and then at me. The front of the car was completely gone.”
Layla was fortunate to walk away from the accident without a scratch. “I generally wear the seatbelt but there were times when I didn’t,” she said.
Post her experience, she says that she would never be tempted to ignore the use of the seatbelt.
“I don’t understand why people say wearing a seatbelt is an inconvenience. Being seriously injured or dead is a far bigger inconvenience,” she said.
After the thrill is gone
Mohammad [name changed to protect his identity] lost his good friend Adel Jahan in a car accident three and a half years ago.
In April 2013, Adel, a 26-year old from Pakistan, along with his friend, was travelling on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. His friend was at the wheel. Adel was in the passenger seat, trying to get some sleep. He was not wearing his seatbelt. The car was being driven at 170km/h, which Mohammad said was not an uncommon pursuit in their circle of friends. “It was thrilling for us to drive that fast,” Mohammad said.
Adel Jahan was thrown from a car head first in a crash, and died in hospital.
On that fateful day, the car hit a bump on the road and due to the speed, the driver lost control and Adel was thrown out through the window, head first.
The force of the impact fractured the 26-year-old’s neck and left him with severe internal bleeding. He was rushed to a hospital and required surgery. But the surgery was complex and it could only be performed by a handful of surgeons in the country.
Adel’s condition was so fragile, he could not be moved to the location of the specialist surgeons. After two days of agonising pain, he was pronounced brain dead and a few days after, he passed away.
The driver of the car was wearing his seatbelt and did not suffer any injury. “If Adel had been wearing it too, who knows, he would probably be alive today,” Mohammad said.
Adel, from Pakistan, was engaged and was to be married in September 2013.
Adel’s death has left a deep impact on Mohammad and his friends. “There were a few instances when we all drove around when Adel was alive and got into ‘almost accidents’. But we walked away from them unharmed so we didn’t think about what we were doing. However, Adel’s accident has changed everything,” Mohammad said. “We wear our seatbelts now and take other precautions. Plus, we don’t drive fast.
Speed at the cost of safety
A.S., a 27-year-old Jordanian, always wore her seatbelt when driving on the highway. However, it was a different story on inner roads.
One day, she left her house in a hurry for a job interview and did not bother to use the seatbelt. Driving faster than she ought to, she lost control of her car and crashed into concrete blocks at a construction site.
Her face smashed into the steering wheel before the airbag deployed.
The accident had caused the driver’s side door to jam, but she managed to extricate herself from the passenger’s side.
Luckily for A.S., an ambulance was passing by and a British couple who had witnessed the accident flagged down the ambulance.
Whilst she was being calmed by the couple, she realised that she was covered in blood. “I panicked cause I hadn’t realise that I was bleeding.”
A.S. had fractured her nose and required multiple stiches followed by surgery to repair the three fractures in her nose.
But troubles didn’t end there for the young Jordanian. A year after the accident, she was still having problems with her breathing. So she underwent another surgery to fix a deviated septum.
“I’m still unhappy with the shape of my nose, as it was perfect before the accident, so I’m planning to get plastic surgery,” she said.
“I could have saved myself all this trouble if only I had worn my seatbelt. It’s a lesson learned the hard way,” she admitted.
Today, the first thing she does when she is behind the wheel is to click in the seat belt. She makes sure her passengers do the same.
Although she tries to educate people about the importance of wearing a seatbelt, it’s a struggle to make the younger generation listen to her, including her own siblings.
“Unfortunately, my brother and sisters still don’t wear seatbelts. They come up with lame excuses such as not wanting to get their clothes wrinkled.”
— With inputs by Nada Al Taher and Aghaddir Ali, Staff Reporters