Only enforcement and culture change will make our roads safer

James Ryan considers ways to make our roads safer

Recent reports on the prevalence of children being left unsecured in vehicles are a clear reminder of the need for further enforcement of safe driving practices, and the very real and significant tragedies that arise when we ignore them.

Some years ago, I attended a psychology conference. During one of the more social sessions of the conference, I found myself in the company of a renowned driving behaviour specialist. Our discussions turned to my own experiences in the UAE and the region in general.

This was not long after I moved to this country and I had already witnessed several nasty crashes, overturned vehicles and, unfortunately, a roadside fatality in Sharjah.

As my conversation with the driving psychologist turned to this darker topic, he described to me some of the studies he had been conducting in the region. One of the experiences he related to me stands out clearly in my mind.

It is of a mother holding her child unsecured in the front seat, naive in the belief that the safest place for her child is in her arms. In the scenario he described, the car comes to a sudden halt under braking.

As is the normal response to such a shock, the mother uncontrollably releases her grip on her child, who accelerates forward into the dashboard. The force of the impact is most likely to cause severe injury, if not death. But this is not the end of this horrible scenario.

The mother, also unfastened, is propelled forward by the sudden halt, but instead of hitting the dashboard, she impacts on top of her child, with calamitous consequences.

If the child had survived the first impact with the dashboard, it is extremely unlikely that he would survive the additional force of the mother being pushed towards the dashboard.

In some instances, the mother survives, but the rest of her life would be consumed by grief and guilt.

I recall my own experiences in the 1980s, growing up in Ireland, bouncing along country roads for hundreds of miles over weekends as our family car traversed the country to visit relatives.

There were certainly no airbags, ABS brakes or traction control in cars in those days. My parents may have had seat belts in the front seats, but there were none in the rear seats. As the youngest child, I was often consigned to sit in the luggage compartment of the estate car that was our family car, with only a pillow and some toys for company. It was a tragedy waiting to happen and yet we survived. We were not involved in any accidents or injuries along those many miles.

At that time, we lacked the safety technology of today and even the understanding of good practices. We were largely ignorant of the risks.

Today there are no such excuses. We have the technology, the seat belts, the air bags and the child seats. Most importantly, we have the knowledge. We know the risks and we’ve seen the dangers. The crash test videos, the TV advertisements and the social media campaigns have highlighted to us again and again the risks and the tragedy. Enforcement is the key to changing driving culture in this country.

In other parts of the world, such as New Zealand, it is written into law that every child should be properly secured in the back seat of a car. It is not just a law to be enforced, it is an entire culture of safety for the protection of every child in the community.

I recall an observation when a member of the driving public in New Zealand got out of their car and stood in front of another car, insisting that the other driver properly secure their child who was jumping around in the back seat.

The second driver duly complied and buckled their child up. I cannot imagine the response I would get if I acted in the same way every time I saw a child unsecured in a vehicle in Al Ain.

James Ryan is an associate professor at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain