Reducing the speed limit around schools has reduced pedestrian deaths overseas. Could the same be achieved in South Africa? File photo: Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

Johannesburg - Professor Sebastian van As is all too familiar with the devastating injuries that are inflicted upon children on our roads every day. Not only because he's the chairperson of the Global Road Safety Partnership of SA; he also happens to be head of the trauma unit at Red Cross Children's Hospital.

Speaking at the Discovery Insure roundtable discussion on road safety this week, Van As called for the lowering of speed limits to 30km/h in areas surrounding schools in South Africa.

“In several countries the reduction of maximum speed in suburbs from 50km/h to 30km/h has led to a reduction of childhood car-crash related deaths of 50%,” he pointed out.

While the correlation between vehicle speed and pedestrian injury or fatality is an obvious one, it's startling what a difference just a few km/h can make.


Can you guess the chances of survival that a pedestrian has when hit by a car at 64km/h? According to a 1992 study by Pasanen, it's just 20 percent and almost zero at 80km/h. Yet at 32km/h, the odds of survival sway to 95 percent and at 48km/h it's 60 percent.

In a 1997 meta-analysis done in New Zealand and Seattle, Wazana et al. found that higher speed limits were associated with higher risk of injury to child pedestrians.

Furthermore, according to the NHTSA, numerous additional European studies document the effects of “traffic calming” changes on crash reductions and pedestrian safety.

Yet there's another important fact to remember when dealing with child pedestrians. As Van As pointed out, when an adult is struck by a car, the collision is usually at leg-level, whereas children are struck at chest- and head-level, resulting in far more severe injuries.

“A large component of crash victims constitute young children,” Van As explained. “We should not forget that 40% of road users are children and be mindful of that when we drive in our suburbs and around schools.”


Yet perhaps his most chilling statistic concerns the vulnerability of children occupants in cars. Did you know that 89 percent of children who are treated at the Red Cross after a car accident were not strapped in a car seat or buckled up in any way?

As the doctor puts it: “We do suffer from a lack of awareness. There's no real awareness of the magnitude of road deaths.”

Of course, lowering speed limits would be meaningless without enforcement, but even failing that, more traffic-calming tools like speed humps would surely go a long way.