It was the beginning of the New year’s weekend and the unusually warm weather earlier in the day seductively encouraged the indulgence of an afternoon siesta, into which I blissfully sank. It was perhaps when I had neared the maximum state of slumber that I found myself being vigorously shaken out of my stupor.
Peering through blank eyes and an equally befuddled frame of mind, I could make out my wife’s hovering presence urging me out of my shattered nap with words that spoke volumes of urgency: ‘accident, children killed!’ Those words quickly cleared the cobwebs coursing agitatedly through my body, and I forced myself into a state of semi-consciousness.
She rushed over to the balcony looking over a residential street with me following closely behind. As I looked out, I could see the remnants of a twisted vehicle across the center median on the road, glass and vehicle parts strewn about, and a crowd gathering. I had a clear view of the accident site but couldn’t make out any fatalities from my observation point. Some kids were hovering nervously about the vehicle, and other than the fast-gathering crowd, there was no indication that anyone indeed had been injured or killed.
‘What happened?” I asked my wife. The screeching of metal and the sounds of burning rubber that sounded like a 747-landing prompted her to peer out of a window as a rapidly moving car first sideswiped a construction site knocking down several barriers, and then losing control went over the median and awkwardly came to rest. She could make out some young kids inside the car, and fearing for the worst rushed quickly to wake me up to help.
Satisfied that there were indeed no casualties and the situation being ably managed by a crowd that had grown to fifty or more, I crawled back into bed to regain what I could of my disturbed sleep. Later that evening, the story got around that, a bunch of kids barely into their teens had taken off for a joyride, and while they narrowly missed an elderly gentleman out for an early an evening stroll on the quiet street, they had managed to create enough mayhem but fortunately without killing themselves or anyone else. The driver was no more than 14 years old, and with his parents out of town, he decided to party.
On my way to the wedding on the other side of town, I was conscious of traffic violations all around me. There were even instances of these violations taking place in full sight of traffic cops, but with so much traffic on the road on a weekend night I figured they were too powerless to be of any deterrent. As I drove gingerly among the reckless road warriors, I surmised that there are several factors that have earned us the distinction of having one of the highest road fatality rates around the world. Not one party or agency is to take the full blame.
Lack of driver education in our schools is one. While the Ministry of Education puffs and swells its chest about the number of yearly graduates, little thought is given to proactive education that should include drivers’ education among other subjects. A high school graduate who has not had to master the skills and responsibilities of taking a machine on the road is a potential killer.
With the introduction of speed cameras and radars, some of the traffic cops in the Kingdom seem to have taken a back seat. A few can be observed parked by the roadside.
Licensing drivers is another matter. It is not strictly enforced and often people can obtain a driver’s license without having to extensively prove their road skills. And with no formal driving schools, one can just imagine the trials ahead.
A friend once told me that at any given time there would be 42 different nationalities driving on our roads. Look around your fellow drivers and indeed you will see citizens from across the planet, each with his driving perceptions and road sense idiosyncrasies. It is gratifying to note so far that female drivers have not factored significantly in road accidents or violations.
And finally, the parents have to shoulder the blame and a large portion of it. Those who shower their teenage kids with Formula-1 type vehicles cannot really expect that teenagers will drive safely and carefully, now would they.
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena