Women in Saudi Arabia gear up to legally drive for first time this Sunday

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Women in this strict Muslim country finally get to sit behind the wheel and legally drive for the first time starting Sunday. One side benefit: This milestone could decrease the nation's exorbitant traffic fatalities.

"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 crash on a Saudi highway. "Statistics show that women are generally safer and more defensive drivers than men."

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced last fall that Saudi Arabia would become the last remaining country to allow women to drive.

Soon after, the Saudi interior minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud, said lifting the driving ban on women would reduce the number of accidents in this conservative country that has 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.

» All women can drive: 7 firsts we can't believe didn't happen sooner

Saudi Arabia has tried reducing speed limits, investing in more traffic signals and roadside speed-warning signs, plus tougher penalties for moving violations. These changes helped Saudi Arabia drop from its 2010 record for the world's highest death toll from road accidents to 34th place in 2017.

Still, a male-only driving population killed more than 9,000 people in 2016, mainly because of speeding, according to the latest government statistics.

Saudi Arabian officials say allowing women to drive could also boost female employment and revitalize auto sales, which have declined in part from falling oil prices the past few years.

"Issuing licenses for 2 to 3 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 at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Saudi Arabia, which released a study in March forecasting the economic benefits of female drivers.

The move could also boost U.S. automakers like Ford, which is one of the top five brands in Saudi Arabia.

"Features are tailored to markets, and in Saudi Arabia the entire population of drivers had been male," said Crystal Worthem, Ford's Middle East and Africa marketing director. "That is changing as women start driving and you will see different ... trends and features — a little bit less about power and a little more about driver assistance technology, comfort and most importantly, safety."

Before the driving ban goes away Sunday, private driving schools in the kingdom report a surge of prospective female students, while women-only universities such as Effat in Jeddah offered drivers ed. Ford has worked with administrators to get students ready for the road through its Driving Skills for Life course.

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

Students practice on a campus parking lot wearing specially designed "fatal vision" goggles that show the effects of fatigue on driving performance and simulate conditions of night driving.

"The frightening thing is that any mistake behind the wheel might cause the loss of a soul," said Dima Najm, 21, a film major at Effat University and graduate of Ford's hands-on course.

"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 are excited about getting behind the wheel — finally.

"I'm not scared about my own handling of the car," said Sarah Ghouth, 22, an architecture major. "The fear is more about risky drivers on the roads."

She has had driver training at the university and her brothers take her to practice in the desert. "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," Ghouth said.

Many women here say they are relieved that they no longer will have to rely on a ride-hailing service such as Uber or need to ask 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, 30, a Jeddah architect, who received her license 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 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, the university film major.

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