ABU DHABI // After giving birth to her daughter, Maha Said expected to leave Corniche Hospital cradling just her newborn baby, Shamsa Mohammed. But hours after Shamsa was born on September 4, Mrs Said received an unexpected gift that she was told could save her daughter's life. A car seat, brought to her room by the hospital, was Shamsa's first experience of being held by anything other than her mother's arms in the outside world.
A Newborn Safety Centre at Corniche Hospital in the capital is ensuring that every new mother leaves the hospital with her baby safely strapped into a correctly installed car seat. The programme, launched in June, has so far given out more than 1,500 car seats, suitable for babies in their first year. The seats usually retail for Dh850, but are being given away free of charge. "Every newborn leaves the hospital in a car seat, and every parent gets educated on how to use it," said Amira Wali, the hospital's public health manager.
The health insurer Daman donated more than 7,200 seats to the hospital, where two of every five babies in the capital are delivered. "It is not enough to pass a law making car searts mandatory for newborns, without having the population ready for it," , Ms Wali said. "We want to educate the mums and families enough so that when a law is passed, they are ready to comply, so enforcement is easy." A federal bill mandating the use of child safety seats and seat belts in vehicles is expected to pass next year, the Ministry of Interior said in March; however, Ms Wali said, "nothing is concrete".
The hospital's Newborn Safety Centre is stocked with car seats for children of all ages and prepares parents to understand the reasons behind child safety in a vehicle. Each parent must spend 15 to 20 minutes with Amal Daiban, an educator at the centre. After their lesson, they have to demonstrate they can install and use the seat correctly. Ms Daiban shows parents two videos that illustrate the dangers of carrying a baby on a mother's lap and of having children unbuckled in the back of the car.
"An airbag is fatal for children 90 per cent of the time, so car seats have to be placed in the back of the car, preferably in the middle and always facing the rear," she said. "The baby shouldn't be wrapped up in blankets, so the limbs are placed correctly in the seat's straps. "The seatbelt should not be left too loose or made too tight; parents have to be shown how to use the seat correctly, for it to be effective."
According to figures released in July by the Ministry of Interior's traffic co-ordination administration, 391 people died in traffic accidents in the Emirates in the first six months of this year, compared with 495 in the same period last year. Only 11 per cent of Emiratis and fewer than half of expatriates wear seat belts, according to data from UAE University. The worst offenders are men between 25 and 29.
Road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for children in the UAE, accounting for 68 per cent of all childhood injury deaths in the country, Health Authority-Abu Dhabi said earlier this year. Car safety seats have been proven to be 72 per cent more effective in preventing fatalities should a car accident occur, and parents are taught the basic physics as to why. "At a speed of 40 kilometres per hour, a baby weighing three kilos would instead weigh 120kg on impact, and fly through the windshield. There is no way anyone can hold on to that baby," said Ms Daiban. Ms Said admitted that she did not use a car seat for her first daughter, Latifa, who is now four. The 27-year-old mother believed her lap would be safe, and always put off the purchase of a car seat.
"I really regret that, because she is now uncontrollable in the car, always climbing between the back and front and never agreeing to be buckled in. "I'm hoping that now, when she sees her newborn sister in a seat, she will get jealous and want one as well." Before the launch of the programme, the Corniche Hospital questioned 800 mothers in an Infant Passenger Safety Survey on their attitudes towards car seats. Many shared Ms Said's sentiments.
Ms Wali said many did not realise car seats could be used for newborns, and would not buy them until after the baby was three months old. "Even premature babies can fit in the seat and be safe. I tell parents that the baby was in a tighter place for nine months, so she'll definitely be okay in the car seat." Some, however, said they already know the importance of a car seat. Aisha Ali, who had just delivered her third baby at the hospital, often drives alone in the car, and needs a safe option for her children.
"They all have car seats, and they are all aware that the car will not move until they are safely strapped in the seat. It's a matter of conditioning, really," she said. Other hospitals across the country, including Rahba and Mafraq hospitals in Abu Dhabi, Tawam Hospital in Al Ain and the American Hospital in Dubai are implementing their own car seat programmes. Additionally, in April, more than 3,600 booster seats for children between seven and 11 years were distributed in public parks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi by BMW, together with health, transport and municipal authorities as well as the Emirates Driving Institute.
Dr Jens Thomsen, the head of occupational and environmental health for Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, said the goal of getting all children buckled up was within reach. "We will continue our momentum; we are planning a campaign with several hospitals, in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia, to distribute more free car seats to newborns for a period of three months, and hospitals will hopefully continue after that," he said.
"Also, educating the parents on the why and how is crucial. It's not that easy; a car seat installed in the wrong way can actually be more dangerous." @Email:email@example.com
Child safety seats should be placed in the back seat of the vehicle and face the rear. The safety seat should never be placed in the front seat as the air bag could hit the baby's neck, which could prove fatal. The seat should face the rear because a baby's head is larger than its body. If the seat were to face the front, anything crashing into the back of the vehicle would hurt the baby's neck. If there is a front-end collision, newborns without a developed neck or spinal cord would be better protected when facing backwards. It is best to put the safety seat in the middle of the back seat, to protect against impacts to the left or right of the vehicle. Car seats should be used until a child is 11 or 12, or until he or she can sit in the back with legs planted firmly on the car's floor and the seat belt across his or her shoulder. The Newborn Safety Centre at Corniche Hospital has examples of all the different car seats, booster seats and booster cushions that keep a child safe until the car's safety belt can do the job. * Hala Khalaf