I was stationary at a traffic signal the other day when my attention was drawn by a pair of eyes peeping at me over the window sill of the car beside me. The mischievous glint in the eyes of the car’s five year old front seat occupant offset the faraway look in her father’s eyes as he looked around at traffic and perhaps thought of something trivial.
It would have to be trivial – he obviously hadn’t paid any attention to the safety of his child – allowing her to sit in the front seat, unrestrained. And as if it prove my point, the child chose that moment to stand up, looking out over the dashboard as the lights turned green. Does anyone care to play the what-if game here? What if he has to brake suddenly? What if someone rams into him? What if the left turn he was taking resulted in a skid? The result in every case is borne by that child.
I have been asked many times whether people have become worse at driving – and it seems like that is the case. A decade ago, I was constantly amazed at the courtesy that a typical driver in Oman showed – we stopped for pedestrians, hardly tailgated at all and usually had a smile as you caught a fellow driver’s eyes. Today, we can say with some dubious satisfaction that Oman’s roads are truly world class. We have gone from being unique to being the same as everyone ‘out there’.
Is it because our vehicle population is rising faster than the availability of road surface? Or is it just that the relaxed way in which we approach life in the Sultanate has been overcome by a sense of urgency that permeates our driving as well?
For now, on an almost daily basis, I notice that drivers in Oman are taking our road manners down the drain. Of all the bad behaviour I most deplore our tailgaters. I refuse to try to typecast the perpetrators into race, gender or age groups and I don’t need to – I have seen all types. Even when I am travelling 10kmph over the speed limit in the passing lane, I get tailgated by someone who believes they have a God-given right to reach their destination 20 seconds earlier. To that end they drive with a couple of feet of air separating their grille from my bumper, expecting me to play chicken and move over. The catch is that in this entire equation, it is the inexperienced driver who gets tailgated and tries to move over, who will cause an accident. As for me, I look in my rearview mirror, think “One more idiot” and ignore the tailgater altogether.
Of course that doesn’t mean that other problem drivers don’t exist – they are aplenty. Meet the rogues gallery – the guy who overtakes from the wrong side, the drivers who use the emergency lane to beat the traffic slowdown, the car that drives at 70 in the middle lane of the highway causing a train of cars that stretch almost a mile behind. Of course the pedestrian has to now be extra careful when crossing the road even at a zebra crossing – the only right of way you get is the right to weigh your chances of survival. I am not even going to start on the guy on the mobile phone in the car or the pedestrians who think they are masters at judging relative velocity so that traipsing across 6 lanes of traffic is ‘doable’.
I pursue a profession where I see many bad drivers among my cohorts, but it is the run of the mill commute that really gets to me. Road rage is a reality – the only question is how far down is it suppressed in the best Jekyllian tradition? I was speaking on radio the other day and had to explain to the host that it wasn’t the car or indeed speed itself that was at fault – but the nut behind the wheel that mattered.
The accident rate in Oman is not going to come down unless drivers change their mindset. Relax, the idea is to reach home in one piece. Along the way let’s try to remain friends and keep our loved ones alive too.