I was hopeful that when we moved here we would not need a car. While I think we could probably get away without one having a car does make life much easier in many ways. At the moment we are renting a Mitsubishi Lancer. I do not recommend it. It may just be this beat up rental but the car is ridiculously gutless. Gutless, by the way, is completely the wrong attribute to have (engine or personality) when driving in the UAE.
To get my driver’s license I met with a traffic officer here at the university. An officer comes to campus during scheduled periods throughout the week. I was a little nervous as no one seemed to be able to tell me whether I would have to take an exam or worse a driving test. I’ve heard all the horror stories about taking driving tests here in the UAE. Apparently they have two people in the car with you. Someone sits in the back and watches to make sure you are checking your mirrors and both try to trick you into making mistakes. I can’t actually say if that really happens but I’ve heard it from multiple people. Thankfully no test was required. Apparently Canadians with a driver’s license get a free pass. I did however need an eye exam, blood test, letter (of I assume recommendation or employment verification – it was in Arabic) from the university, my Emirates ID (government identification card), copy of my visa, passport and my Canadian driver’s license. Of course, I also had to pay the 540 dirham fee. In the end I had my license in just a few short days after applying.
That first day on the road was a little nerve wracking. Having taken taxis and ridden with others I had a sense of what I was getting into. People are nuts. So far we’ve been pretty safe. I’ve only had one giant SUV try to push me off the road. That close call was in a traffic circle. Thanks to my cat-like reflexes we escaped that one. We were never in much danger as they would have hit me – people don’t hit me I hit them. I suppose there is a first time for everything though. Traffic lights may actually be against the religion here – okay I’m being facetious but you do not find many traffic lights here. Giant traffic circles keep people moving relatively smoothly. In fact, I am actually beginning to prefer them though they are still somewhat intimidating. Cars come gliding in on your right and move swiftly through. The car in the front is the winner… generally.
The highways here are plentiful and enormous. Divided highways with six or more lanes a side criss-cross the country. The speed limits are generally 120 kilometres an hour. The limits are “enforced” by photo radar. I have not yet seen a police officer pull anyone over. I don’t believe they do. While the speed limit is 120 the photo radar does not actually go off unless you are travelling over 140. You try to avoid the fast lane. If you do end up in the fast lane to pass some idiot driving 90 you may enter it with the lane clear and before you know it have someone directly on your bumper. They’ll draft just a few feet back flashing their lights at you until you move over. It can be a little nerve wracking.
I thought at first it was just my rental car but I’ve learned since that many cars here are equipped with a… . I’m not sure what to call it, a “speed warning system” maybe. I discovered it while listening to some local Arabic music on the radio. There I was bobbing my head to a clearly Middle Eastern tune when an odd dinging beat interjected into the song. I thought – wow this music really is strange. It took me a few moments but I soon turned down the radio and was a little freaked out by the car’s clear warning noises. Was the hamster in the engine about to die? Why was the car screaming at me. After a little experimentation I discovered the noise was related to my speed. Anything over about 122 km/hr the alarm sounds. They must not be in every car or they disable them or just play their music really loudly.
Speeds of 160 and above are quite common and must be largely due to the incredibly nice highways. I don’t believe I’ve seen a single pothole the entire time I’ve been here. Indeed, a crack in the highway would be very much out of place. I guess it helps immensely when the temperature never approaches zero and rain is scarce. I have noticed, however, that there is really no drainage for these roads. When it does rain I imagine everything floods. I asked a few locals… no… long time residents about rain and the drainage and they confirmed my suspicions. Then I naturally had to jump on youtube and check it out. Maybe I’ll have a few of my own videos to share in the next few months. Here is one from 2008:
I don’t think I’ll be getting on the road if it looks like rain. Construction though is unavoidable and there is a ton of it. It seems they are always ripping up some road to widen it or build a better, bigger traffic circle. They are building some enormous raised traffic circles or ramps or bridges… something gigantic and concrete over a few major highways here. I don’t quite get how they are going to work and nobody else seems to know either. I’m sure when they are done people will wonder how traffic ever moved without them. With all the construction though it seems you can head out in the morning and not be able to return the same way by the evening. Thankfully road signs are in English not just Arabic.
Waiting for a meal the other day I picked up a magazine and read a sad statistic. 63% of childhood mortality ( 14 years and younger) in the UAE is due to traffic accidents. Apparently, many parents don’t require their kids to wear seat belts. I can’t imagine letting my kids run about the car ever, most especially on these roads. This Gulf News article confirms what I read earlier. We can’t take the shortest trip here without the kids fighting (they are not used to having to sit right next to each other). Just imagine what would happen if they were not strapped down.
Those of you who know me know I am not the biggest fan of driving. The UAE has not improved that sentiment. I’ll grit my teeth and grip the steering wheel so we can get to the mall though.