Car companies and safety groups are teaming up to educate parents on seat safety, Georgia Lewis reports
As the law currently stands across the UAE, seat belts are only compulsory for front-seat passengers, children under 10 are not allowed to travel in the front and there is no legal requirement for parents to use any sort of safety seats for babies or young children. Not so coincidentally, then, road accidents account for 63 per cent of deaths among children ages zero to 14.
Last month, the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi announced that making child safety seats compulsory is part of its 2010 road safety plan after a study it conducted found that 98 per cent of child passengers in the UAE are not properly restrained in cars. However, there is no firm time frame in place for new legislation to come into effect.
So while the law may have some catching up to do, passionate child-safety advocates across the UAE are pre-empting any proposed changes to legislation.
In April, BMW distributed more than 3,000 booster seats for parents of children ages seven to 11, a commonly neglected age group for proper restraint in cars.
One of the newer initiatives is a multi-emirate programme sponsored by Chevrolet to distribute 1,500 baby seats to new parents and provide education on how to use the seats and why they are important.
Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai, Al Rahba Hospital in Abu Dhabi and Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah have each received 500 seats from Chevrolet. Distribution has already started at Al Wasl Hospital and it will soon commence at Al Rahba and Al Qassimi. The rear-facing seats are worth Dh850 each.
At Al Wasl Hospital, an average of 20 babies are born every day. Naima Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, the hospital's director of clinical support services, explains that the seats will be given out to Dubai-resident parents who have booked in advance to have their child at the hospital so that they can easily be contacted to follow up on seat usage after they go home. The parents who are not eligible for the free seats will still receive the hospital's education programme on the importance of safety seats.
Al Wasl plans to contact the parents with baby seats after nine months to ask how the seats worked out. The hospital will also see if the parents plan to upgrade to a bigger child seat, as the ones offered by the hospitals are good for children up to nine months old.
Ahmad, a trained physiotherapist, says she has always insisted on seat-belt use in her car and used child safety seats with her own children. "I used to work at Rashid Hospital where I would help accident victims recover," she says.
The programme has also encouraged other Rashid Hospital staff to think about their own habits when it comes to children in cars. Sylvia Fernandes is one of the nurses who has been giving presentations to new parents and admits that she did not use a safety seat when she had her daughter six years ago, but would definitely use one now.
"They ask why only now they introduce [child safety seats]," says Fernandes of some of the parents she has trained. "We've been travelling a long time, we have previous children and nothing happened [the parents have said]. I give them statistics."
One couple who received a new baby seat from Al Wasl was Ravindran Ramaswami, 30, and his wife, Sumithaa Sayee Krishna, 29. They had their first child at the hospital, a baby girl they named Rhea.
The couple found out about Al Wasl Hospital's initiative in the month before their daughter was born. "We were planning to buy one anyway, but when we found out the hospital [where they were booked to have the child] was giving away free seats, we were very fortunate," says Ramaswami. "It is a good thing what they are doing."
"I am 200 per cent behind using baby seats, that is very important," he says.
Another supporter of Chevrolet's initiative is Lesley Cully, founder of the Buckle Up in the Back Dubai Facebook group, which now has more than 1,000 fans. She met with Al Wasl Hospital staff so she could promote the initiative through Facebook.
"I have been approached by car companies [who are involved in child safety seat initiatives] who want to work with me exclusively," she says. But Cully says that, rather than working exclusively with one brand, she would prefer it if all the brands ran their own campaigns as they see fit, but had a consistent message, ideally with everyone using the phrase "buckle up".
"If we get the words 'buckle up' in people's heads, it will start to stick," Cully says.
Since starting her group in May, Cully has appeared on television and has now embarked on a campaign to distribute leaflets in English and Arabic and to speak to school students in the hope that they will learn to wear seat belts and encourage their families to do the same.
"I am a big believer in pester power," she says. "If at my daughter's school someone can visit from the dentists and tell them how to brush their teeth, then surely the same idea can be applied to getting people to buckle up."
Ahmad, who met with Cully at the hospital, agrees. "In my family, they know that the rule in Aunty Naima's car is to wear seat belts."
Ahmad and Cully agree that there are bigger cultural issues to be addressed to ensure children take good habits into adulthood and to change the minds of parents.
At the school attended by Ahmad's children, seat belts are mandatory on the school bus, but pupils often unbuckle after the teacher has checked. But Ahmad says her children remain buckled up. "Even if they get bullied, it doesn't matter, they keep their seat belts on," Ahmad says.
Ahmad also says that the excuse given by the parents of large families is that if a baby safety seat is fitted in a car, there will be no room for the other children. "We still have a lot of work to do," she says.