Only 2% of motorists bother to strap in their children

Doctors at Health Authority - Abu Dhabi have made it their mission to educate parents about the necessity of car safety seats for children.

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Only two per cent of the population are buckling their children into car seats or strapping them in with a safety belt, according to a UAE University study.

The study, done in 2008, found that almost a quarter of children ride in the front seat of a car, which is illegal. Children under 10 must sit in the back seat.

"If this law was enforced, it would prevent mothers from holding children on their laps in the front seat." said Dr Jens Thomsen, section head of occupational and environmental health at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad).

And if mothers knew that "it doesn't require a big accident, severe crash or excessive speeding for the baby they are holding to be killed, then they would stop assuming that their arms or lap is the safest place for their child", said Dr Reem Al Ameria, the senior officer of health promotion at Haad's public health and policy department.

Dr Thomsen and Dr Al Ameria have made it their mission to educate nurses, doctors and health educators in hospitals across Abu Dhabi emirate, in the hope that every parent will know that using a car seat and belt is the best option for a child.

"If the car crashes when driving at a mere 50kph, just multiply the weight of the baby by that speed and you get the force at which they will be ejected from the car," Dr Al Ameria said.

A baby weighing 3kg, she said, would be equivalent to 150kg at impact, and would crash through the windshield.

"There is no way a mother can hold on to that baby," she said. "Parents are just not aware of how dangerous it can be. They just lack education."

As a public health agency, Haad is also working to educate the community, with the hope that once a law is in place - expected by the end of the year - the population will understand why it is necessary to adhere to it.

"We have 2,500 free car seats ready to give out to parents of newborns at maternity wards of all the major public hospitals in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the Western Region," Dr Thomsen said. "But before we distribute them blindly, we want to make sure these seats will be used, and correctly."

Haad is training doctors and nurses in the maternity and neonatology wards of nine hospitals, to instruct parents on the proper use of car seats.

"We don't want to just hand out the seat and then have a parent stop using it because the car is full of people or because the child is cranky and doesn't want to be restrained," said Dr Al Ameria.

Traffic accidents have been the leading cause of death among UAE children up to age 17 for the past three years, she said.

"We need to familiarise parents with the car seat as a product: why they need it, what happens when they don't use it, why it should face the rear of the car for the first few years of a child's life, why it has to be upgraded as the child grows, and so on," Dr Al Ameria said.

A rear-facing car seat, for example, is the safest option for young children. It has a harness and in a crash, cradles and moves with the child to reduce the stress to the fragile neck and spine. Dr Al Ameria said many parents are not aware of this.

Once Haad's campaign launches, the seats will be distributed to parents of newborns, but the campaign is intended to make every parent aware of the issue.

"At the end of the day, it will be the parents who are expected to purchase the seat because it is not sustainable for the government to provide seats for children of all ages, which is why we need to get the community to understand the importance," Dr Thomsen said.

Haad is looking into a policy that would make it mandatory for maternity wards to ensure children leave the hospital in a car seat.

"At the very least, we can make it mandatory for the hospital to provide education and information to the parents, so they can understand the need themselves," he said.

Once parents understand that using car seats can save their child's lives, convincing them should not be a difficult task, said Dr Al Ameria.

"We buy all sorts of things for our children. Why not pay the small amount of money to get them something that is guaranteed to protect them?"