Sunday, May 21, 2006

Seatbelts Optional

The driving habits of the developing world can be summed up in one word: "interesting".

I have not yet bought a car, and I routinely share cab rides with my colleagues back and forth to the hotel my company has put me up in for temporary accomodation until I rent a place. Many of my colleagues find it interesting that I wear a seatbelt while in the back seat.

In the UAE it is legal to NOT wear your seatbelt in the backseat. You have to wear it in the front seats.

To many people, the only incentive to wearing a seatbelt is the law. There is no concept of safety in many people's minds here.

Why? I recently was watching the Discovery Channel in my hotel room (for those of you who don't know, most Arabs speak English quite well and prefer English language television and movies to their own), and I saw a special on the history of automotive safety. The show replayed old interviews with Americans in the 1970s, about then newly legislated laws requiring seat belts. All the Americans argued against them because they felt that seatbelts were too constricting.

Nowadays, most Americans and Westerners in general, especially those living in countries that mandate the wearing of seatbelts, wouldn't think of being in a car without one. In our minds, safety is the reason for wearing them, with the wrath of the law coming in a distant second.

I think the reason for this is that Americans and Europeans have been subjected to a never ending stream of safety films on the dangers of not wearing belts. In short we have been brainwashed. But I believe it is for a worthy cause. Seat belts DO save lives.

This country is made up of people who do not comprehend that yet. The result is a considerable death toll. Dubai is still a small city, with only 1.3 million inhabitants. Yet according to the Gulf News (the leading English language daily here), the death toll is in the hundreds, well over 300 per year. This is a stunningly high number.

It won't change anytime soon unless the government commits to horrifying people with both statistics, graphic re-enactments of deaths on public television and education in schools. Will it happen? I think so. In terms of the impact car crashes have had on the region, the King of Bahrain's 13 year old son was recently killed in a traffic accident. It can affect anyone at anytime.

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