Why wait to belt up the kids?

Just more than a year ago, The National reported that the Government was considering making child safety seats compulsory.

Just more than a year ago, The National reported that the Government was considering making child safety seats compulsory. The need for such a law was, and still is, clear. Between 2000 and 2006, according to figures collated by UAE University, 460 children under the age of 14 died in car crashes, two-thirds of whom were under four years old. Abu Dhabi Health Authority figures for last year show that 44 children under 17 died on the roads in Abu Dhabi.

A separate study found that no child killed or injured in a crash between 2005-2007 had been restrained. That is no coincidence. According to the European Transport Safety Council, 83 per cent of children who are wearing seat belts or in car seats are not hurt in crashes. Now the Government says that by next year it will introduce the law for child safety seats and rear restraints. But this raises the question: What stands in the way of implementing the law now?

Brig Gen Ghaith al Zaabi, director of the federal traffic department at the Ministry of Interior, said that the government is in the process of testing out different seats to find appropriate ones for each age group. Experts say this is prudent. However, individual organisations are going ahead with their own plans. The Abu Dhabi Health Authority says that later this year it will start handing out free baby car seats to parents of newborns in a pilot project. At Mafraq Hospital in 2008, staff were distributing free seats as well. Meanwhile the National Transport Authority, which first announced a law was in the works, has been running an awareness campaign on the need for the seats for the last year.

But a law is needed to back those campaigns up if they are to result in change. In any case, motorists will likely be given several months of grace before enforcement begins, and educational campaigns will need to be ramped up to persuade drivers that the seat can save their child's life. During that time, police officers would also need to be trained to make sure they see the point of the law, says Bernadette Bhacker, who runs a road safety awareness campaign in Oman - entitled Salim and Salimah.

Child passenger safety technicians could also be trained to assist parents and caregivers with the proper use of safety seats. There is much to be done but that should not be a reason to delay a law. I have heard the excuses made by parents here: child seats are too expensive, or parents with large families cannot fit enough safety seats in the back of a car. But those excuses put children in danger.

Of course, with the introduction of such a law, we cannot ignore the fact that not enough adults are wearing seat belts. But on the positive side, compliance is higher for front seat passengers, likely because of a law mandating it. And when Dr Yousef al Hosani, CEO of the Emirates Institute for Health & Safety, conducted a study in 2006 looking at seat belt compliance before and after a comprehensive road safety campaign, he found that compliance did in fact increase after the campaign.

Perhaps a law meant to protect children could be just the right issue for authorities and motorists to rally around and lead to an overall increase in seat belt compliance along with it. mchung@thenational.ae