An important measure of a society's health and progress is how well it protects its most vulnerable. Statistics released by the Abu Dhabi Police Department last week demonstrate that by that standard this society is falling far short, particularly when it comes to reducing the number of child fatalities on the roads. Between 2001 and 2007, the number of children killed in accidents of all kinds every year increased by 37 per cent, to 7,011, and road accidents were the No1 cause of death. In a week in which three young sisters were killed crossing a notoriously dangerous road in Abu Dhabi, such statistics provide more sobering detail of this unacceptable death toll, a toll that The National has launched a campaign to reduce. In our campaign, and in all law-enforcement efforts, protecting children must be the first priority.
On any day of the week, any observer can see road accidents waiting to happen as children sit on their parents' laps in the front seats of cars or play unsecured in the back, and traffic speeds past drop-off areas outside schools. But it is the police who most often witness the consequences when this negligence results in the avoidable death of an innocent child. To first-responders, child deaths are not just statistics, but awful visions that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.
To their credit, the police have not remained silent in the face of the tragic loss of young lives that they have witnessed. In an unusual public call at the weekend, they demanded a new federal law on child safety. "This is a clear indication of the negligence of parents and guardians and their lack of understanding of the unpredictable behaviour of young children on the street," said Capt Bashir Saleh Balbisi, who wrote the report by the Abu Dhabi Police Department's Centre for Research and Security Studies that prompted a plea for new legislation.
While inattentive parents and guardians bear some of the blame, our whole society shares a responsibility to make child safety an urgent and collective concern. As Shahid Mahmood, whose four-year-old son was hurt last month when he fell down an open manhole in Dubai, says: "Health and safety issues in this country, for children and adults, are far too low down on the list of priorities." When children die after being struck by vehicles, "the majority of these accidents happen near schools", according to Mohamed el Sadig, a researcher of community medicine at UAE University in Al Ain. Knowing this, and that speed is the biggest contributor to fatalities from traffic accidents, the authorities, including the police, must take immediate measures. While children are enjoying their summer break from school, this is an ideal opportunity to introduce more speed humps near schools, to announce stiffer penalties for those drivers who break the traffic laws in school zones, and to organise more frequent mobile police patrols to be introduced at the beginning of the school year in September.
The number of child deaths - and the proportion of them caused by traffic accidents - can no longer be written off as one of the country's "growing pains". The thousands of children whose lives have been so cruelly cut short demand not rhetoric or excuses, but immediate action.