Doha drives home lesson in safety

Last summer, Nasser al Thani edited together a series of grisly crash images: cars split in two; front ends flattened; vehicles entwined, like pretzels. He added an operatic soundtrack and posted the video on YouTube in an effort, the Qatari said, “to raise awareness of road safety.”

More than six months later, the message may be getting through.

From Kuwait City to Muscat, the hazards of the road are real and growing. But they are particularly acute here in Qatar, which has seen traffic and serious road accidents mushroom in the past decade as Doha’s population has doubled.

For every 10,000 vehicles on Qatari roads today, seven people are killed in crashes each year – a rate nearly five times higher than most western nations (in Britain, 1.5 people are killed annually per 10,000 vehicles).

“If you look at traffic, this is a serious and fundamental problem that impacts safety, environment, and productivity,” said Dr Adnan Abu-Dayya, the executive director of the Qatar University Wireless Innovation Center (Quwic).

Qatari officials and business leaders have in recent months moved to stem the tide – importing outside analysts, launching major infrastructure projects, devising technological solutions and hosting instructional workshops.

A ride on the roadways of the Qatari capital is seen by many locals as equal parts frustration and trepidation. Many of Doha’s primary arteries are clogged for much of the day, and the Qatar International Safety Centre (QISC) said more than 100,000 accidents occur in Qatar each year, and that a person is seriously injured on Qatari roads every two hours.

To improve public safety, Qatari officials asked the advice of the US transportation department, which manages a system of more than 250,000km of roadways. Earlier this week, US Federal Highway Administration officials submitted a preliminary report on the state of Doha’s roadways. “Our mission here is not only preventing injuries on the country’s roads from vehicular accidents,” said Craig Alfred, a transportation safety specialist. “We are also focusing on how to save lives.”

The analysis included general comments on traffic and safety and recommendations on street parking, constructing motorway barriers and isolating industrial and other areas of heavy commercial traffic.

The report, a final version of which will come next week, also called for pedestrian protections, such as wider walkways and more footbridges.

“This was the biggest review we’ve had in regards to what we need to take care of,” said Jamal al Kaabi, the chairman of infrastructure affairs at the Public Works Authority (PWA). “We are definitely considering a lot of the issues they brought up, because safety is one of our top priority issues, especially in new roads and highways.”

To that end, the PWA is building fencing along all major highways to keep people from attempting to cross, and adding separated bike lanes to major new roads.

Two major infrastructure projects aim to further improve safety by decreasing congestion. Last week, the government announced plans last week for a six-lane tunnel that will run under Gulf waters from Doha’s new airport, opening in 2011, to the city’s densely populated West Bay. “We are still waiting for the final concept design,” said Mr al Kaabi, adding that the cost and start date remain unknown.

Last November, Qatari Diar announced a 300km, US$25 billion (Dh92bn) metro and light rail system, built in partnership with the German transportation company Deutsche Bahn, to begin construction across Doha next year.

A variety of smaller initiatives approach Qatar’s traffic and road safety problems from different angles. Quwic’s traffic monitoring system delivers real-time data to help drivers avoid the busiest routes. The University of Texas A&M at Qatar recently gave 40 engineers from the PWA a short course on traffic safety, highlighting the importance of road design and traffic light placement. Also on the Education City campus, designers at Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar are studying the effectiveness of Qatar’s road signs and their ability to communicate their messages to drivers.

Despite all this attention, the precise level of danger drivers face on Qatari roads is unknown. “It’s very difficult to get good information,” said Mario Virgili, the director of road safety at QISC. “We can’t guarantee our figures are correct, given that the traffic police don’t provide the information we need.”

While the Qatari interior ministry reported 230 vehicular deaths in 2008, for example, the QISC estimates 346.

What is clear is that the majority of accidents result from a lack of awareness. A study by Qatar’s Emergency Medical Services found that the top reasons for road accident deaths were speeding and failure to wear seat belts, while the QISC said the majority of drivers involved in accidents are under 30 years of age.

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