By Miranda Andrew and Mauricio Langa
It took a minute for Caitlyn van der Merwe's mother, Jackie, to strap her into the baby seat in her car. And it was that one minute that probably saved the toddler's life.
The Westville mother and her 15-month-old baby girl were travelling along Escombe Road in Pinetown earlier this month when Jackie lost control of her car.
The car hit a lamppost, flew 15m off an embankment, and crashed into a tree. The impact caused the tree to split in two.
Inspector Terence Mhlongo watched in horror as Van der Merwe's vehicle plunged off the embankment.
The policeman rushed to assist and radioed for an ambulance before plucking little Caitlyn out of the baby seat.
He was relieved to find that the baby did not even have a scratch on her.
Van der Merwe, who was wearing a seat belt, sustained back and leg injuries.
Mhlongo assured her that her daughter was safe and that she would soon hold her in her arms again.
Van der Merwe was taken to St Augustine's Hospital where she stayed for a week.
Now nearly two weeks later, she is still in a wheelchair.
"I am just thankful that my baby was saved. If anything happened to her I don't know what I'd do - she is my life," Van der Merwe tearfully told the Daily News yesterday.
"If we did not have seat belts on, we both would be dead now," she said.
But seat belt safety is not regarded as a priority by parents, according to a recent survey.
The Road Traffic Inspectorate's Colin Govender revealed that over the festive period alone, 4 409 drivers and passengers - including children - were found not wearing seat belts in the province.
The shocking disregard for children's safety has become such a growing concern that organisers from the Renault- sponsored Saved by the Belt effort and the Committee for Active Road Safety (Cars) have lashed out at parents, saying they are endangering their children's lives.
"Some parents themselves wear seat belts but do not ensure that their children are protected from serious injuries or even death," Cars member, Robin Emslie, said.
He said of every 10 cars in South Africa, six are occupied by drivers and passengers without seat belts.
Emslie said that children who do not use seat belts become missiles if the driver brakes suddenly or if the car is involved in a collision.
The survey found that it was not uncommon for children to sit on their parents' laps in passenger seats.
He said parents could save themselves a lot of grief by taking one simple safety precaution.
"Ensuring that your child is wearing a seat belt is not only an immediate safety precaution, but it's also an insurance for their lifetime safety in vehicles. They will become so used to wearing a seat belt that it will become a habit with them," Emslie said.
Police and traffic authorities say they have attended many accidents in Durban where children have not been safely strapped with seat belts.
Metro Police report that not wearing a seat belt is so common that at every roadblock they carry out, there is an average of 10 drivers and child passengers found not wearing a seat belt.
This includes children sitting in the front passenger seat or on other people's laps unsecured.
Metro police spokesperson, Superintendent Alec Wright said babies and small children need to be strapped into a baby seat.
He said not wearing a seat belt was not only an offence, but also extremely dangerous.
Wright warned that drivers and each passenger 18 years and over found not wearing a seat belt would be fined R500.