Thursday, March 13, 2008

the Fog

It still bothers me--the circumstances around the 11 March highway melee. There are two things that trouble me. One, the apparent cover-up of the extent of what happened. The other, the cause. I will start off with the easier of the two to analyze--the cause.

People's knee-jerk reaction, you see, is to blame the drivers. The UAE, among its residents at least, is notorious for its wild, reckless and arrogant drivers. So, why blame mother nature when it seems there is a more likely culprit. My experience on the roads of the Emirates over the past several years, however, tells me that drivers are becoming more careful and indeed more adept at driving. Five or six years ago, a crashed car on just about any weekend night along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway seemed quite the norm. Now, it is quite rare that I see one, even though the number of cars on the road have increased several-fold.

Like anyplace, you will have that percentage of wild and arrogant drivers, but I would dare to say that many a UAE driver has learned lessons the hard way from mean and careless driving, and that things have been improving over the years.

It Was the Fog

On that incredibly foggy morning, I myself, had slowed down to 60 kph. There were some drivers going even slower, while only a few were going much faster. There was no great multitude of speeding drivers that might easily account for pile-ups adding up to over 200 cars. In fact, at 6:45 in the morning, when the Ghantoot pile-up occurred, there would not have been that great a number of cars on the road. On this fateful morning, regardless of who the driver was, the fog had the upper hand.

When I started off from Abu Dhabi that morning I thought to myself, "Here we go again." It was the third day running for this kind of weather. But not long before I reached the first crash site I was thinking, "Oh my God, this is the thickest fog I've ever seen in my life!" My technique, under such conditions, was to make sure that I was close enough behind any car in front of me to see its tail lights. In that way I could be certain of the length of the gap between us and could adjust my speed accordingly. But where the fog was its thickest, this was almost impossible to do. In seconds the tail lights of the car in front would disappear and leave me with no idea how much space there was between me and the next car.

Only a couple of minutes before reaching the first crash site I had already decided to pull off the highway, but would not do so until I reached the next petrol stand--about 10 kilometers away. As events would unfold, however, I would never get that chance. Reaching the initial crash site and eventually passing 80 wrecked cars, I and everyone else still moving on the road, were diverted at the next interchange and forced to return to Abu Dhabi. It was some 2 and 1/2 hours later and the fog had lifted as the sun shone brightly, but the highway onward toward Dubai remained a no-go, for all the crashed cars that littered the road further ahead.

I was also thinking to myself shortly before reaching ground zero, "Man, I'm in the clouds!" It was the fog that morning--so thick in places--which had caused the melee. Just as airport runways are closed when the fog reaches certain levels, so should the highways. Official announcements ought to be broadcast that highways will be closed from time X to time Y, thus forcing drivers to remain put.

Next post on the nature of the cover-up.

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