Saudi women ready to hit the road on June 24

Courtesy of the Saudi Ministry of TransportJEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Remember that old insult about female drivers? Well, in a twist, Saudi Arabia is hoping that by allowing women to legally drive for the first time this month, the country is going to bring their tragic accident rate down.

“Did you know that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest accident rates in the whole world and that’s why safe driving is so important to us,” said Haifa Jamalallail, president of Effat University, whose 17-year-old daughter died in a fatal crash on a Saudi highway.

“Statistics show that women are generally safer and more defensive drivers than men," she added.

Last fall, Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman announced that women would be allowed behind the wheel for the first time in the last remaining country that still bans women from driving.

Soon after, Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud said the lifting of the ban would reduce the number of accidents in a conservative Muslim country with one of the worst car-crash mortality rates in the world.

"Women driving cars will transform traffic safety – it will reduce human and economic losses caused by accidents," he said.

The country has tried to bring down accident fatality by reducing speed limits, investing in more traffic signals and road-side digital over-limit warnings, and creating tougher penalties for moving violations – these helped Saudi Arabia climb back from its 2010 record with the highest road accident death toll in the world to 34th place in 2017.

But still, a male-only driving population killed more than 9,000 in 2016 – mainly due to speeding. 

Meanwhile, even as Saudi Arabian officials hope women drivers reverse a testosterone-fueled road fatality rate, they also want the ban's reversal to boost female employment and revitalize auto sales – these declined due to austerity measures caused by shrinking oil income from falling oil prices over the past few years.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers study released in March forecasts benefits for the Saudi economy as new women drivers simultaneously enter the automotive and job markets.

“Issuing licenses for two to three million women also empowers them to join the workforce and the disconnect between job opportunities and access is about to end,” said Hala Kudwah, a lead consultant for the group in Saudi Arabia.

The influx of women drivers in the kingdom is also set to benefit US automakers like Ford, which ranks as one of the top five brands in Saudi Arabia. It's already changing how they think about their business models.

“Features are tailored to markets and in Saudi Arabia the entire population of drivers had been male with both data gathering about vehicles and marketing always done from a male perspective,” said Crystal Worthem, Ford’s Middle East & Africa Marketing Director. “That is changing as women start driving and you will see different segmentation trends and features – a little bit less about power and a little more about driver assistance technology, comfort and most importantly, safety.”

Meanwhile, as the driving ban goes away June 24, private driving schools in the kingdom are reporting a surge of prospective female students, while women-only universities such as Effat in Jeddah have already been offering drivers ed. Ford has been working with administrators to get students ready for the road via their Driving Skills for Life course.

Because of her daughter's death, Effat's Jamalallail says she is particularly invested in the road safety aspect of the Ford program: "Our goal is that our student change the culture in the roads by practicing safe driving,” she said.

Students practice on a campus lot wearing specially designed “fatal vision” goggles to show the effects of fatigue on performance and simulated conditions synonymous with night driving.

“The frightening thing is that any mistake behind the wheel might cause the loss of a soul,” Dima Najm, a 21-year-old film major at Effat University, a graduate of the hands-on Ford course.

Meanwhile, she expressed pride at her achievement:

"Some of my sisters already have an international license so I'm proud to be first in the family with a Saudi one," she said.
Some future female drivers say they are excited about getting behind the wheel – finally.

“I’m not scared about my own handling of the car,” said Sarah Ghouth, a 22-year architecture major who has been training to drive. “The fear is more about risky drivers on the roads.”

“Still I feel confident because of the training we got at the university and lucky because my brothers are taking me to practice out in the desert,” added Ghouth. “They are actually happy to teach me because it means in a few weeks they won’t have to be driving me around anymore. My dad will be happy to see less money go to ride app companies.”

Mobile ride services are big in the kingdom where women are reluctant to hail taxi cabs on the street.

In 2016 Saudi Arabia’s government investment arm put $3.5 billion into Uber which splits the ride app market in the gulf states with Dubai-based Careem.

Eighty percent of Uber’s Saudi riders are women and while both personal transit firms have launched recruitment campaigns to train female drivers, many women here say they are thrilled at the prospect of no longer needing a ride service or asking their fathers or brothers to take them shopping or to work.

“Not every family can afford a driver who will take care of their daily errands,” said Aziza Zare, a Jeddah architect, who received her license earlier this month. “I calculated what I pay for these service apps every year and it adds up to about 30,000 Saudi Riyals ($8,000) so driving myself will save me time, money and will keep me in control of my schedule.”

And for young Saudi women learning to drive, getting behind the wheel has ignited a sense independence never felt before in a culture laden with gender-based restrictions and taboos.

“Since we finally achieved this, I think we can go anywhere and achieve anything,” said Najm.

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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