Q: How can you tell the precise instant a Dubai traffic signal turns green?
A: Everyone starts honking their horns.
It's not as cacophonous as you might imagine–the drivers don't lay on their horns, which themselves emit rather anemic beeps.
Every driver isn't necessarily that much worse than in some other places we've been and although they seem to treat a Stop sign as a Yield, there are some traffic laws they do obey. For example, as you might infer from the traffic quiz, they actually do stop for red lights. Also, they yield to traffic in the "roundabouts," not an inconsequential matter, since the legacy of the former British influence has resulted in a multiplicity of them. In fact, once out of the city center most major intersections are controlled by them, often with a statue in the center by which they can be referenced; for example, the Falcon Roundabout or the Clock Tower Roundabout. However, there are some complexities that westerners may not be aware of. Not only do drivers already in the circle have the right of way, leading to some very long backups during busy time periods, but also inner-lane vehicles have priority over all those in outer lanes. That is, if someone runs into your left rear fender while trying to exit, it's your fault! However, this can be overridden by the unwritten law that if an expatriate and a national are involved in an auto accident, it's always the expatriate's fault.
As you might imagine, with flat, wide-open spaces between cities, there are some major limited-access highways. Although their maximum speed is 120 kph, few abide by it. Cars sold here have an alarm that starts beeping when you reach that speed. While heading into the desert for some "dune bashing" the other day, our driver seemed to use the warning as a method to assure that he was going fast enough without the distraction of having to look at the speedometer. Although seat belt usage is mandatory throughout the UAE, he unbuckled his as soon as we left the city. It was more than a little disconcerting later when we were careening over the dunes and he was driving one-handed because he was clutching the overhead grab bar with his left hand.
Even before you get out of the city, cars whiz past at speeds that we've only seen on the Autobahn, although the drivers aren't nearly as skilled. If they can't get by on the left, they'll zoom to the right, via the shoulder if necessary. The UAE has one of the highest incidents of road deaths per capita in the world. Causing a death through an accident requires paying the victim's family–literally, blood money–about $40,000 for a male, half that for a female(!); however, nationals are insured against it. We heard of one who had killed three pedestrians, and afterwards shrugged: "They were in my way."
We've heard that a recent auto accident fatality was the son of the sheik who is ruler of Dubai. This can't be verified through the controlled media; the Gulf News only reported that the death was due to a "tragic accident" and gave no detail–perhaps he actually fell downstairs. Other sheiks and rulers sent messages of condolence 1 or came to mourn him, and all major celebrations, including many fireworks displays, that had been scheduled throughout the UAE for the last day of Eid al-Adha, a four-day public holiday 2 that occurs after the Haj, were canceled.
1 Required formalities result in some extended descriptions. For example, a photo caption in yesterday's newspaper notes that "Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum yesterday received a condolence message from Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the death of his son Sheikh Rashid bin Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The message was delivered to Dubai Deputy Ruler and Minister of Finance and Industry Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, by Indian Ambassador K.C. Singh. Sheikh Maktoum received a similar message from Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which was delivered to Sheikh Hamdan by Colon Tariq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, Commander of the Yemeni Special Guard."
2 An unusual feature about Islamic holidays is that no one knows exactly on which day they will commence until a day or two before they occur, since they depend upon "the sighting of the moon at a particular stage in its cycle." The UAE abides by the date determined by a group of imams, religious leaders, comprising–what else?–the Moon-Sighting Committee, in Saudi Arabia.