Minibus in the UAE
Why do minibus drivers seem to drive so fast and recklessly? Image Credit: Archive

At 3:45am every morning, the alarm would ring. Time to go.

With incomplete sleep and a back hurting from driving constantly, Hamza (name changed on request) would rub his eyes and start to get ready.

After picking up the staff of a company from their accommodation, he would have to make his way through heavy traffic, ensuring no one was late.

“A mini-bus driver’s job might look easy, but it’s not,” says Hamza. The 46-year-old, from the Indian state of Kerala, is not a minibus driver anymore. But he recalls his driving days as “very stressful” and explains why minibus drivers drive the way they do.

“Many people say minibus drivers drive rashly, but they never understand why we have to drive fast sometimes.”

Battling sleep and traffic

“I would try to be in bed on time daily by 8.30 and 9pm so that I [could] wake up on time,” he says.

Even sleep is stressful. “We sleep knowing that other people’s work depends on us [getting] them to work on time. The staff needed to [be] dropped off at 8am, but we start much early. So you have to be up and alert when the alarm rings. So late to bed cannot be an excuse, even if you have a restless night’s sleep.”

sleepy driver
Minibus drivers battle battle sleep and traffic to ensure passengers are on time Image Credit: Stock photo

Hamza said most minibus drivers experience the same problem, irrespective of whether they are driving staff from their accommodation to their workplaces, or dropping off passengers who share cars.

“Many times the passengers we pick up would sleep off in the minibus. The ride gets quiet. We keep the volume of the radio or the music player low, so as to not disturb sleeping passengers.”

Many times, early work hours means driving straight into rush-hour traffic. “The vehicle moves so slow, [it] means constantly shifting between the first and second gear.”

Bikes
With a combination of silence, slow-moving traffic and sleeping passengers in the back, drowsiness kicks in. Picture for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Archive

With a combination of silence, slow-moving traffic and sleeping passengers in the back, drowsiness kicks in.

“But, we tell ourselves to stay alert. So many lives depend on our alertness daily,” adds Hamza.

“With both hands, both legs constantly work and our brain [is] constantly pushing [us] to stay alert. It gives you a lot of tension,” Hamza’s says.

For drivers travelling between the emirates daily, the job is tougher, he adds.

The fear of losing job and money

Talking about the accident that took place on September 30, Hamza says, “In my experience, most minibus accidents happen due to overspeeding.”

“You know why we drive fast?” Hamza asked. “Many times it’s because our passengers complain that they are getting late for work because we didn’t drive fast enough.

“When the traffic is bad, we automatically get delayed, it is not because we were inefficient.”

But, that again, is not an excuse. "We have to be on time," he says.

“If we reach late, or punch in late, we lose our salary. If we drive fast and cross cameras, we land in fines that get cut from our salary. It’s a loss either way. And, if all these offences are repeated too often, we are fired.”

“If we reach late, or punch in late, we lose our salary. If we drive fast and cross cameras, we land in fines that get cut from our salary. It’s a loss either way. And, if all these offences are repeated too often, we are fired.”

- Hamza (name changed upon request)

“We are scared, we will lose our jobs and we drive fast wherever and whenever we can,” he added.

“Our salaries are not much, sometimes Dh2,000 or a little more, but I know minibus drivers who make much less than that. And, after our company is done issuing fines, we are barely left with any money to send back home."

Hamza came to Dubai when he was just 16, in the year 1993. After working two jobs he went back in 2001, got married and returned to join as a driver at a hotel. Like many expats, Hamza came to the UAE to support his family.

“We have families, and children, waiting every month depending on our meagre salaries, to pay for household costs, education and other things.”

He said: “To us, our health, sleepiness or hurting backs become secondary, when we think of the money we need to save.”

Low salary, multiple driving jobs

While minibus drivers who have fixed jobs of transferring staff from accomodations to companies have enough tiime to rest, some of them don't rest enough. Why? According to Hamza, it is because some of us have salaries so low, that we take up partime jobs to transport people.

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"After our company is done issuing fines, we are barely left with any money to send back home." Picture for illustrative purposes Image Credit: Bloomberg

"Some of us finish our shift and take a second round of passengers, so we don't get enough sleep."

"And, to ensure everyone reaches everywhere on time, we end up driving a little fast. It is scary but we do our best to keep our passengers safe," he added.

Maintaining the vehicle

For many minibus drivers, maintenance of the vehicle is also their responsibility. “When we take the vehicle to garages and ask for repair work that costs [a lot], sometimes, our company or managers don’t believe it and require us [to give] a tally. So we try to take the vehicle to cheaper places for repair. It hasn’t personally happened to me, but I know many fellow-drivers who have said this,” says Hamza.

Shape of minibuses unsafe

Another minibus driver, 36, who transports staff of a hotel daily, added: “The shape of the minibus is not like other cars on the road, they are flat in the front mostly. Since there is no hood part, in case of a crash, the driver and front passenger are mostly unsafe.”