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Teens taking the wheel

For teens, driving affords a freedom akin to a bird learning to fly. For parents, however welcome it may be to give up their parental-chauffeur responsibility, a newly licenced teen can be its own source of anxiety—even more so in Qatar, with its reputation for reckless drivers and erratic traffic patterns.

“I was nervous and afraid on my first day because the instructor made me drive,” recalls Amani Siam. “From what I heard, normally the instructor drove on the first day, not the student.” Adding to her apprehension, the lessons took place at night, but luckily her first experiences navigating roundabouts were inside the driving school. It was nearly a week before she was deemed confident and competent enough to practise her newly acquired skills on Qatar’s roads.

Rachel Awad’s son Karim passed his test on the first try. “He was really keen and took his lessons very seriously. Once he was enrolled, he simply took it from there,” she says. And indeed Awad has every reason to be proud of her son—in Qatar, where the success rate of passing on the first attempt is said to be low, a teen passing on his first try is an added bonus.

A changing landscape

Currently in Qatar, one must be 18 years old to be able to enrol in a driving school, although according to the Qatar e-government Hukoomi, special permission can be granted for learners as young as 17 years old. Teens who want to learn to drive must register with a driving school, must have completed at least 15 hours of theoretical classes and must have taken at least 35 hours of driving lessons before attempting the test. 

When Siam took her test three years ago there was no such provision for learning the theory of driving. One was simply required to identify signals and successfully navigate the driving course. Karim Awad, who took the test earlier this year, was required to successfully complete both—the theory as 
well as practical component.

And the curriculum is set to change again, according to reports from The Peninsula. Concerned with the ever-worrying traffic accident statistics, the Traffic Department recently held a workshop for driving school representatives on the role of effective training in reducing accidents. The General Directorate of Traffic is said to be releasing a new unified curriculum, which is expected to address the drawbacks of the existing system. At the time of writing this article, it is unclear as to the specifics of the changes or the timing of the implementation.

A difference of opinion

Despite the anticipated changes, the question of permitting one’s teen to drive in Qatar draws a myriad of reactions. There are a number of voices on either side of the fence, each with their own compelling reasons. 

For some young people, like Siam, there is only one course of action. While Palestine is her homeland, her family realised that there was no turning back when they migrated here. She was born in Qatar and the country is her home. Having no one available to transport her to her university classes and back, getting a driving licence and a vehicle was a necessity.

For others, like Karim Awad, it is a question of independence. As his mum puts it, “They have to learn at some time and it is unfair to expect teenagers here to conform to someone else’s schedule in order to do the things they want to or go where they wish. If we were back in the States, Karim would easily be able to take the public transport or would even have learned to drive. These [public transport] options are simply not available to teenagers here.” “Besides,” she says with a smile, “if he can drive here, he can drive anywhere else.”

While other parents have echoed Rachel Awad’s sentiment, there are parents that have a different viewpoint. “No way!” and “Don’t you want your child to live?” were among the responses on a local Facebook group to the question about whether they would allow their teen to drive in Qatar. Many of those parents cited alarming accident statistics and a dangerous driving culture as reasons for making them leery. 

Others, like Nasrin Satvilkar, are concerned about their child picking up bad habits at the outset. “In the U.K. there are very stringent criteria they have to meet. The training reflects that,” she says. “Over here, the instruction does not necessarily adhere to the same standard.” After speaking to parents whose teenagers have learned to drive here, her concerns remain. Many feel that the driving instruction is not as robust and oftentimes the students take the test prior to completing their required supervised driving hours. 

Satvilkar has a fair point. After 12 supervised driving hours, Siam was deemed competent enough to take her driving test. Karim Awad also took his driving test early. Meanwhile in the U.K., learners are given a minimum of eight months to practise before they sit for their road test. In Australia, new drivers must log 100 hours of supervised driving before attempting to get a licence and in New Zealand, there are tiers of driving competence to be met with a minimum of six months practice between each tier in order to procure one’s licence. 

Costly fees (up to QR 3,350 for a full course) for driving courses are another reason that parents cite for shying away from the prospect of having their teens learn to drive in Qatar. And some parents do have a viable alternative to the local driving courses. Sarah Cameron plans to start processing her son’s licence when they go to New Zealand for the summer so that when he comes of age, he will be legal to drive over there. Once he has some experience under his belt, she and her husband plan to give the young man the option of driving here. Satvilkar’s reasoning is the same. Her son will eventually need to acquire a U.K. licence anyway and so once he has developed good driving habits in the U.K, she expects that it will ease his transition to driving on Qatar roads.

Ultimately, the decision to give one’s teen the option to learn driving here boils down to a matter of individual experiences, outlook, beliefs and preferences. If you plan to let your teen learn here, Siam has some parting advice, “We don’t learn everything in school,” she says, “so at least for six months a teen shouldn’t drive alone without an adult. I started driving alone since the day after I got my licence and ended up in a minor accident. My advice is to let him get his licence but keep going out with him till you feel he is ready to drive on his own.” 

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