ALKHOBAR, 19 October 2007 — “Blood Border” is a phrase unfamiliar to most people in Saudi Arabia. It describes the division between two states where the legal age for alcohol consumption is lower in one than its neighbor. The alcohol-related traffic accidents caused by youngsters driving from one jurisdiction to the other after a night of partying, leads to a border awash in blood and tears.
In the Eastern Province, there is a Blood Border in the area of the King Fahd Causeway. Bahrain, just across the Causeway, allows the sale of liquor. In Saudi Arabia the consumption of liquor is prohibited. During Ramadan every year, traffic across the Causeway is diminished. But starting on Eid Al-Fitr, tens of thousands of people make the trek to Bahrain. Many of them can be seen happily consuming alcohol in Bahrain’s hotels, clubs and restaurants.
What they are doing is none of my business — until they decide to get behind the steering wheel of a vehicle and drive. Our home is five minutes from the Causeway. Every night during the Eid holiday week, we have had to deal with the problem of impaired drivers returning after a bit of fun in Bahrain. Actually, this is an issue every weekend, but during the Eid holiday, the terror of it continues night after miserable night.
Normally, when a driver is having difficulty keeping to the center of his lane in the Kingdom, it’s because he’s talking on his cell phone. But at night on the roads and highways leading into Saudi Arabia from the Causeway, for safety’s sake it must be assumed that every driver is at least somewhat impaired and perhaps five percent are outright drunk.
The drunk drivers who weave left and right are easy to spot and avoid. There are also the overcautious drivers. These are the impaired drivers who realize they are in trouble, but who won’t pull over and sleep it off since “home” is nearby. They will be driving 50 kph in the middle lane on the highway, where everyone else is doing at least 120 kph. Just imagine what happens when they are encountered unexpectedly!
Then of course there are the happy drunks who think that drinking makes them better drivers. These fellows will be powering down the highway and they won’t slow down for any reason — unless of course they hit another vehicle. Such drivers are rarely on the Saudi roads before 3 a.m. — they usually close out the clubs in Bahrain. Simply being home by midnight is the best defense against them. Bad as they are, they aren’t the drivers that are the most feared. It’s sad to note, but it’s the young men who go to Bahrain and knock back two or three drinks with friends before returning to the Kingdom at a decent hour, who are the most dangerous drivers.
These young men tend to live with their parents and being out all night would lead to questions. They think that having a few drinks and then driving isn’t a problem at all. Unfortunately, their response time is slowed and they may be drowsy from the alcohol. If they are joined by friends in the car, they may be distracted, too. As we all know, the situation on the Kingdom’s roads isn’t the safest. Combine the teenage driving maniacs with the impaired drivers on a highway near a recreation area in the evening, and a blood border is the outcome.
There are no statistics on how often alcohol plays a role in Saudi traffic accidents. A “Legal Limit” doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia. Having any amount of alcohol in a person’s blood stream in the Kingdom is illegal. Every Saudi insurance policy states that there is no compensation for accidents caused by drunk driving. In the Kingdom, penalties for drunk driving include fines, imprisonment and even lashing.
In Bahrain too, there is supposed to be zero tolerance for consuming alcohol and driving. Under Bahraini law, any sign of having consumed alcohol may be taken as prima facie evidence of driving under the influence, which can lead to imprisonment and/or fines. So if the laws are in place — why are drunks on the road?
The problem is a lack of enforcement. The Bahrainis could set up random breathalyzer testing on their side of the Causeway every night, but that doesn’t happen. Coming into the Kingdom on the Causeway, everyone must stop at a Custom’s check point. When Arab News inquired about the procedure for dealing with drunk drivers, the Saudi Custom’s officer, who refused to be named, stated that they really have no way of detecting drivers who may be impaired but not drunk. They call the police to hold those drivers who are clearly incompetent to drive, and a blood test to confirm blood alcohol level is not always carried out.
So year after year the tradition continues. I’ve lived in the Eastern Province for more than a decade now and every Eid it’s the same. Just as sure as there will be Eid candy on the table, there will be Eid drunks on the highway. Isn’t it time we found a better way to celebrate?