This article could make you a better driver

While the UAE authorities have gone on the offensive recently when it comes  to dangerous driving, Abu Dhabi World’s Julian Pletts goes on the defensive

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“You have to smack other drivers!”

So says Muhammed Amin Shah Abdul, the driving instructor for the Emirates Driving Institute’s advanced driving course, which teaches defensive driving techniques. With a wry smile he delivers this answer to my question regarding the most appropriate and realistic way to deal with the red mist of road rage.

But wait, before you rush out and report the calm-natured Muhammed for inciting tarmac-based tussles, SMACK is an acronym for Small Acts of Courtesy and Kindness. He cites giving way to someone at a crossing or allowing a fellow driver the benefit of the doubt when they cut you up, both concepts he admits are pretty alien on UAE roads.

For a second there, I was worried that having shown up at the Emirates Driving Institute headquarters for a taster session in advanced and defensive driving, I might have taken a wrong turn somewhere and this was more MMA than calmly giving way.

With the recent introduction of more stringent road safety laws, which include buckling up in the back and for young children to be transported in car seats, I wanted to find out what more as drivers we can do to reduce risks on UAE roads.

Of course, we all think it’s always the other driver’s fault. But what can you do if you are a careful driver to offset the dangerous driving practices of others? Clearly it is still a relevant question as 7,592 violations have been recorded in Abu Dhabi alone since the laws came in to effect at the start of July.

As Gandhi so wisely said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. And, as I was soon to find out, despite having over ten years of experience driving both in Europe and the UAE, there’s still plenty of room for me to change and improve my driving style.

Back to basics

The advanced driving course, which spans most of a day, gets into gear with a theory session in the classroom where Muhammed goes over the key tenets of safe driving. Given that I wonder if some of the drivers on the road here were even told how to properly enter and exit a roundabout, I imagine this is valuable revision for most, including myself, as Muhammed recaps stopping distances and speed limit awareness, plus introduces some more advanced elements.

He is very open to questions from his students, so I pipe up asking whether you should move out of the way or stand your ground when someone is hot on your tail in the fast lane, incessantly flashing their lights.

Calmly, Muhammed suggests, you should indicate to show your intent and when it is safe, and only then, move over. The key is not that you are giving way to an aggressive driver but you are removing yourself from a potentially dangerous situation.

From the presentation room, we go to the garage where a demo car is ready and we’re quizzed on various parts of the engine. I get four out of five right; I even get bonus points for knowing how to tell which side of the car the petrol cap is without looking – hint: it’s the little arrow on the dashboard next to the petrol pump sign. But I stall when he challenges me to explain exactly how much tread there should be on a tyre or how to tell, to the month, how old a tyre is.

Head out on the highway 

After this careful revision and ahem, introduction, to basic car maintenance, I am given the keys and we head out on the road.

My senses feel dramatically heightened, as I am aware my every hand placement on the steering wheel or head movement is being carefully scrutinised.

The internal monologue goes something like: ‘That cyclist is coming right for me… Look left, look right. Are my hands at ten and two? I’m driving well below the speed limit… Too slow? Please someone, let me in, I can’t do my normal UAE-style merging… Surely that will get me marked down…’

Eventually though, the elevated heart-rate subsides and sweaty palms pass. I find a rhythm, even discussing with Muhammed the etiquette for letting someone go first when hand signalling can be misconstrued with severe consequences.

Flash your lights, he says, and lo and behold, the pick-up truck ahead understands. Is Muhammed magic? Am I in a safe driving twilight zone?

No, I’m just driving a bit calmer than normal and someone is still approaching far too fast and close in my rear view mirror.

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P for pass? 

After our seemingly short sojourn, Muhammed asks me to park safely in the upcoming garage and I do so very carefully. It’s verdict time.

Well, I would say it is a solid ‘B’.

He remarks that I have a positive attitude to other drivers as he explains about one of the key tenets of defensive driving.

“OAP – observe, anticipate and plan.  These are the key words of our advanced driving course and it will help you in every situation,” he says, noting that I failed to plan ahead in that merging situation (I knew he would mark me down).

One of the biggest learning points that has stuck with me was around space management and not, as he put it, “getting myself into traps” by maintaining my circle of safety.

He gives the example of when you are arriving at a traffic light; consider what the person behind you is doing. Are they arriving too fast? Are they paying attention? Are they mentally reviewing the pros and cons of the chicken supreme they had for dinner last night? Muhammed advises planning ahead so that you do not arrive to the lights or to the car in front until you have seen that the oncoming car behind is slowing down and the driver has their eyes on the road.

As we head out again, this time with Muhammed in the driving seat, he expertly demonstrates the traffic light stopping point. He is not just looking at cars as colourful boxes and gauging distances, but he pays heed to what the drivers themselves are doing, their body language and even which way their eyes are looking. Narrating as he goes, he demonstrates a level of awareness that borders on Jedi and one that I will continue to emulate.

With 725 deaths on the roads in the UAE last year and 4,788 serious accidents, I can safely say that everyone who holds a driving licence in the UAE would benefit from going on such a course.

For more information on the advanced driving course, visit: edi-uae.com

At the wheel

Quick driving tips on being a safer driver

Plan your route

Knowing where you are going reduces stress while driving. Don’t depend on sat nav, as it can be unreliable.

Maintain your ‘circle of safety’

Leave enough space to the front, rear and side of your vehicles. The UK Department of Transport notes that the stopping distance for a car travelling at 70mph (112kph) is 96 metres. That’s 24 car lengths!

Remember, OAP

Work on your observation, anticipation and planning skills to ensure safety
at all times.

Stick to the speed limit

Follow all speed limits as signposted and not a perceived speed limit buffer.

Scan the road

Always scan the road from far distance to middle distance and near distance for complete awareness of conditions.

And don’t forget: SMACK

Small acts of care and kindness – we all have to get to where we are going.

WORDS Julian Pletts

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