What’s Wrong With Our Driving and Driving Schools?
Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Arab News

When a man or woman leaves home, they come face to face with a sea of cars and other vehicles surrounding them from all sides as if everybody were in a race with life and death. I am talking about driving in the Saudi capital Riyadh. People sit in their cars, holding their breath until they reach their destination and when they return home they feel as if God has given them another life. This is the truth of driving in our cities with very little exaggeration.

Things have become so bad that people thank God whenever they return home without having an accident or without a rise in their blood pressure or sugar as a result of anger and tension. What causes the problems is the reckless driving in our streets, the selfishness and egotism and the total lack of consideration for anyone else.

Every time I go out, I see a car challenging from this side and another from that and yet a third car overtaking in a dangerous way and another abruptly entering the main road from a side road. Most drivers do not have the courtesy to slow down at a roundabout; instead they race onto it at full speed. Many others give signals to right and left carelessly in order to make people behind them blow their horns in order to vent anger and disapproval.

I am forced to ask where these people learned to drive. Who is to blame for these travesties? We all know that there is only one entity which teaches driving all over the Kingdom — a private company named Dallah. To what extent does Dallah bear the blame for the terrible driving in Saudi Arabia? And why is there only one company? How are its activities monitored and how does it teach and train drivers? When are licenses issued? All these are legitimate questions and deserve answers.

According to my information, Dallah has two branches in Riyadh — one in the south and one in the north. There are 36 trainers; half of them are expatriates and the training is given within the school. Sometimes the trainees are taken to one of the expressways without any special sign on the vehicle. The trainers follow the curriculum given to them by the traffic department in each region. The programs differ according to who the drivers are. It is clear from the programs that some young people who received training from their fathers or relatives are given a three-hour “soft course” on road signs in order to pass the test. Foreign drivers, who got licenses from their respective countries, are given intensive training programs for 30 hours.

This system creates two problems: First, the young drivers are given theoretical studies about road signs without any practical training. Second, foreign taxi drivers are given licenses without having any knowledge of Saudi traffic rules and regulations and road signs.

It is clear that one of the main problems of these driving schools is that the training takes place within an enclosed area and the trainee will not have any knowledge of real roads and how to deal with actual situations. We don’t know whether wasta (connections) and friendship play any part in issuing driving licenses. This is in addition to the unjustifiable monopoly of the company, which prevents competition and chances of improvement.

I remember that while learning to drive in Britain, the traffic department imposed strict rules before issuing licenses. But these rules made the men and women who received licenses qualified drivers. I also remember the difficulty I went through to pass the tests, including the practical and theoretical ones. A person might fail if he or she made a single mistake. Those who fail had to pay the fee again and wait for another test. I can see that many people in Riyadh are driving without any sense of responsibility. Many of them are unaware that their absurd actions could lead to the loss of lives of many of their fellow road users.

In Britain, you will fail the driving test if you give a wrong signal or enter the roundabout before allowing others who have already entered it to pass by or if you do not look at your mirror quite often to see vehicles behind you. A person will not receive a license if his car is in poor shape — such as no front or rear lights and signal lights.

Reckless driving in Saudi Arabia has resulted in the number of accidents in the country increasing rapidly. It is high time that we made a thorough review of our traffic system and its agencies. According to statistics issued by the National Committee for Traffic Safety, the number of accidents from 1994 to 2003 was 2.16 million which left 39,441 dead and 289,980 injured. The statistics do not give the number of people with permanent handicaps as a result of road accidents. In 2003 alone, accidents killed 4,293 people and injured 30,439 others.

These are appalling figures which reflect the bad state of driving in our country. But have we taken any measures to correct the problem? We only implement regulations that are applied all over the world after losing hundreds of precious lives and billions of riyals.

The use of safety belts is one example. It was implemented in the Kingdom only recently. The rules for mandatory use of safety belts by passengers in rear seats or seating of children in back seats or preventing the use of mobiles while driving have yet to be implemented. Our ways of driving leave a great many questions unanswered.

— Hatoon Al-Fassi is a Saudi writer and historian based in Riyadh. She can be reached at Hatoon-alfassi@columnist.com