Cape Town -
We are world champions at killing children. This was the tragic conclusion of Professor Sebastian van As, speaking at the Africa Road Safety seminar this week.
“All traffic crashes are preventable,” he said.
Van As is head of trauma at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, head of Childsafe SA, and regional chairman of the Global Road Safety Partnership.
At the conference, hosted annually by the partnership, experts from home and abroad presented chilling statistics.
Africa possesses only 2 percent of all the world’s vehicles, yet 20 percent of all road deaths happen here.
African roads are the most dangerous in the world – and children bear the brunt of the carnage as they make up 21 percent of all road deaths.
The first recorded car crash in South Africa took place at the Maitland level crossing on October 1, 1903.
Charles Garlick was driving his father’s new Darracq with two passengers. They entered the level crossing through an open gate, only to find the gate on the far side closed.
Before Garlick could move the car, the Johannesburg Express smashed into them. All three were injured, but survived.
In the 110 years since that crash until the end of last year, more than half a million people – 543 000 – have been killed on South Africa’s roads.
Van As explained that if an adult pedestrian was hit by a car, he or she was likely to have pelvic injuries. But a child’s head was closer to the height of a bonnet, and children were much more likely to be dealt blows to the critical head and chest area.
He said a child in South Africa was 25 times more likely to be admitted to hospital than a child in the US. Of the children treated at Red Cross for injuries from car accidents, most were walking to school when they were hit.
A full 71 percent of Van As’s young crash victims were pedestrians, and 11 percent were passengers not wearing a seat belt.
In the parking lot of the hospital, Van As conducted research into driving habits. How many parents visiting young patients would belt up as they left the hospital?
Half of all drivers did not wear a seat belt. Passengers were even worse: 71 percent of front seat passengers and 90 percent of back seat passengers were unrestrained.
Another conference delegate, Dr Kunuz Abdella, of the World Health Organisation, said car crashes were the leading cause of death in children up to age 19 globally. In Africa, road deaths came a close second to deaths caused by fire.
Dr Ashley van Niekerk of the Medical Research Council looked into the causes of South Africa’s staggering road carnage.
In what he termed “upstream causes”, infrastructure was the biggest problem: limited pedestrian walkways and few safe playgrounds for children away from roads.
Excessive travel times and distances also played a part, thanks to historical spatial divides that left many people living far away from the city or suburbs where they worked.
Inadequate law enforcement also meant that drivers breaking road rules could get away with it unpunished.
Looking closer at direct causes, he listed alcohol, speeding and motorists not wearing seat belts as the biggest problems.
Driver fatigue and aggressive road behaviour also contributed towards deaths.
As the Africa Road Safety Seminar conference continued, delegates were expected to study examples of road safety interventions from around Africa, and also look into the viability of a partnership with civil society and the private sector to cut down the car crash carnage.