Dubai: A minibus accident in Dubai, that claimed two lives and injured 12 on Sunday morning, is the latest crash in a long line of fatal accidents involving this much questioned mode of transport.
The vehicle hit a cement barrier on Sheikh Zayed Road and overturned before bursting into flames, according to Dubai Police.
As the number of minivan accidents have caused horrific deaths and injuries across the country, a ban has been recommended, to be enforced from September 2021, for school students, and from January 2023 for all other passengers. While the safety of the vehicle has been criticised as the cause behind many of these accidents, questions arise on whether there are other factors at play.
The minivan ban had been decided upon during a council meeting chaired by Major General Al Zafein, Deputy Commander General of Dubai Police, Operations Affairs, and Head of the Federal Traffic Council, due to the startling statistics that around 20 people die every year from minivan accidents, apart from the many who suffer injuries.
Thomas Edelmann, founder of RoadSafetyUAE, believes that there are three main factors to consider when discussing the safety of minivans, or lack thereof.
What are we driving?
Edelmann firstly points out an area of concern that the authorities are fully aware of, which is the overall reliability and safety of the vehicle itself.
“When you look at the shape of the minivan, it is mostly designed to transport cargo and has then been modified to transport people. Many experts believe they are not safe for passengers as most of these vehicles lack basic safety features. Some don’t even have seatbelts in all the seats or only include a two-point belt, which does not suffice,” he said.
The expert in UAE road safety also observed that many of the accidents involve minivans ramming into the back of an object or another vehicle such as a truck. “This leads us to believe that minivans are not able to apply the brake in time. There are many safety features that are now available that we should utilise, such as an emergency braking system, collision warning and lane departure system. We are lobbying for this heavily because as regulators, we need to come up with better criteria that the vehicles have to fulfil.”
Who is driving?
Another aspect that Edelmann believes could be a contributing factor is that many of the minivan drivers do not have a specific licence to drive the vehicle. Instead, an average driving licence that is granted to civilians can be used when driving a minivan. “There are up to 14 lives behind these drivers and they should not be allowed to drive without specific qualifications. I recommend they undergo the same training that is mandatory for truck drivers and other commercial drivers,” Edelmann said.
How are they driving?
When civilian drivers break traffic laws, overspeed or drive recklessly, they compile up to 24 black points before their licence is suspended. Edelmann believes that stricter rules should be put in place considering that they have lives on their hands. “Minivan drivers should have much stricter laws against them. If a driver gets a number of traffic fines or black points, this person must instantly go back to reeducation and recertification, to ensure that the person behind the wheel is the best possible driver,” Edelmann suggests.
He hopes that minivan drivers could be required to have similar technologies that exist in other commercial vehicles in the UAE. “When you think about taxis or school buses, they are all monitored by black boxes so that all the driving behaviour is monitored. In taxis, you can hear the system ringing if the driver is going too fast. All these systems are at our expense and we should be utilising them. This policy would make sure that vehicles are driven in the best way by strictly controlling them.”
Considering that minivan drivers are transporting people at all hours of the day, a question arises on the amount of rest that these drivers get prior to their trips. According to labour laws in the UAE (Articles 65 and 66), the maximum working hours is eight per day or 48 hours per week. This could be increased to nine hours a day for specific jobs and only upon approval. Workers should be permitted to rest for not less than one hour every five hours of consecutive work.
Edelmann discusses the importance of ensuring that these laws that the government has set are being fully utilised to benefit the health of the driver and the safety of the passengers. “Commercial drivers such as minivan drivers are much more likely to experience fatigue and exhaustion than private drivers due to the long hours inside the vehicle. As we know fatigue plays a big role in many commercial accidents.”
‘Drowsiness alert’ is a feature found in certain vehicles that can detect a driver’s drowsiness based on the driving behaviour. With a symbol of a coffee cup and an alert message that often reads, 'Take a break!', the driver, and perhaps passengers also, are alerted that the vehicle is not being driven safely and a rest period is required. This ensures that commercial drivers who spend hours behind the wheel are able to maintain concentration and alertness.
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An interview with a number of minivan drivers in the UAE brings to light an underlying issue. Mohammed transports labourers in a minivan in Sharjah. His typical working hours are from 6am to 2pm with a two-hour rest before his shift commences from 4pm and runs until 8pm. Mohammed explained that there was a lot of waiting for passengers, which does not constitute driving time and is yet counted as part of his shift.
Ali is the owner of a minivan in Umm Al Quwain, where he works up to 12 continuous hours, transporting a number of passengers to their jobs and back. The driver assures that he does take breaks when driving long distances.
Professionals weigh in
Dr Naseem Palakkuzhiyil, a neurologist at Aster Hospital, explains the direness that lack of rest could lead to. “People who work in shifts that start at early or late hours are prone to irregular sleep-and-wake schedules. They are chronically more sleep-deprived than an average employee. Part of that group comprises commercial vehicle drivers who spend many hours on the road. As much as possible, they should regulate their sleep to ensure seven-and-a-half to eight hours of sleep at night.”
The lack of rest or irregular hours could cause many risks on commercial drivers and Dr Palakkuzhiyil describes one of those serious outcomes: “[Lack of rest] can cause frequent ‘microsleeps’ during the day, leading to an overall impairment in performance. Other effects are impairment of vigilance, attention, concentration and memory.”
Psychiatrist Dr Laila Mahmoud also weighs in by suggesting that irregular working hours can be a cause of insomnia. “Persistent lack of sleep can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, which we call (Narcolepsy), emotional difficulties and poor job performance.”
“Sleep-related problems are known risk factors for road accidents. We should, as mental health organisations, increase awareness about insomnias, its risks and consequences and encourage reporting of sleep-related problems by employees, particularly when they are asked or surveyed. Drivers should understand that poor sleep most commonly develops for no apparent reason (primarily insomnia).”
Additionally, Dr Mahmoud suggests: “Drivers should be advised of the risks associated with sleeping tablets, e.g. daytime drowsiness affecting their ability to drive or to operate, as well as the risk of tolerance and dependence from use for more than just a week or so.”
Names have been changed upon request to protect the privacy of the individuals.