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 on Tuesday.
“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.
“WE KNOW HOW TO KILL KIDS”
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.
SEVERE BLOWS TO THE HEAD
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 continues into its second day, delegates are set 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.
CALL FOR LAWS THAT “BITE”
We need laws that bite to bring traffic offenders to book, said Transport Minister Dipuo Peters in her keynote address at the Africa Road Safety seminar.
If punishments were harsher, it would put people off driving irresponsibly, and help prevent road deaths.
“In our society, people don’t take traffic offences seriously. If we can have laws that bite, and make sure we have convictions, it would change a lot.”
There should be much harsher penalties for drivers who were drunk. “They are a danger to themselves, to society and to economic development. My target is to go for zero tolerance.”
Peters said she would consider trying to amend legislation to come down harder on drunk drivers charged with killing someone in an accident they caused.
Looking at road traffic deaths in South Africa, she said that in most incidents men were the drivers – but children came out as the most vulnerable group, as either pedestrians or as small bodies easily thrown from a vehicle.
Peters announced her department’s new Scholar Transport Policy, which is soon set to run the gauntlet of scrutiny in the Cabinet and then Parliament.
With 65 percent of pupils walking to school, the policy is aimed at getting children to school safely.
If children live further than 5km from school, they will receive safe, state-subsidised transport. If children live within 5km of school, they will be given a bicycle and helmet.
The department has supervised the distribution of 95 000 bicycles since 2006, and plans to issue an additional 21 000 in the next three years.
Peters explained the national transport department’s key strategy to lower road deaths.
It relies on the upgrading of the rail transport system, which has been ailing for some time. It also relies on fledgling public transport projects, and the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme
to scrap minibus taxis in dangerous conditions.
“The National Household Transport Survey 2013 indicates that the percentage of car ownership has risen from 22.9 percent in 2003 to 32.6 percent in 2013. This increase has a direct impact on traffic congestion and presents a higher risk for road crashes. The ultimate aim of our integrated public transport system is to lessen vehicle density on our roads and thus reduce the probability of road crashes.”