The statistics are sobering. According to the Ministry of Health, 6,146 children have been involved in car accidents between 2001 and 2007. A report that was a combined initiative of Safe Kids Worldwide, Al Ain's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and Roadway Transportation, and the UAE Traffic Safety Research Centre found that, between 2001 and 2006, 460 children died in car crashes on UAE roads and two-thirds of these children were aged between 0 and four.
The Buckle Up campaign made headlines with its launch this month and the fact that it is a strategy slated to run for 10 years indicates that everyone concerned is acutely aware that there is a long way to go before UAE road death figures are comparable to nations such as Malta, where, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is an average of 2.47 road deaths per 100,000 people, and the Netherlands, where 4.5 road deaths per 100,000 is the national average. In 2005, a WHO study revealed that in the UAE, the average figure is 21.6 deaths per 100,000. In 2002, 51 people were killed per 100,000 people on UAE roads.
The UAE National Transport Authority, Safe Kids Worldwide, UNICEF and General Motors have joined forces in the Buckle Up campaign and it is aimed at encouraging parents to use child safety seats through advertising campaigns and public demonstrations in shopping malls on how to properly use safety seats. The advertising campaign uses the slogan "If you really want to hold on to them, let them go and strap them in" to encourage parents to stop carrying children on their laps while travelling in cars and to use safety seats instead.
With massive cultural change required as well as calls for stronger legislation, reducing the number of children that die on UAE roads is going to be a significant task involving many people and organisations. The NTA has set a target to reduce the UAE's average annual road deaths to 17 per 100,000 people within the 10 years of the Buckle Up campaign. This is still a long way behind most European countries, as well as the US, Australia and New Zealand, but better than neighbouring Oman and Saudi Arabia. WHO figures suggest that the figure is 23.6 per 100,000 people in Oman and 21 in Saudi Arabia.
The Dubai Roads and Transport Authority admits it is difficult to get exact figures on seat belt and child safety seat use in the UAE but studies are underway. "In most traffic accidents, drivers tend to claim they were using seat belts but the only way of verifying this is during serious injuries or fatalities," a spokesman told The National. He said there are no clear statistics regarding children involved in car accidents and how many were using safety seats. "Unfortunately, due to lack of legislation, police officers are not required to record this information."
"The RTA has carried out a number of seat belt surveys and studies which showed results that varied from 30 per cent compliance up to 65 per cent compliance depending on the background of the drivers and the different times of the day and week," says the RTA spokesman. "RTA will also be carrying out a major study and campaigns towards improving the compliance rate of safety belt use and child safety seats."
Even making the public aware of existing UAE legislation in regard to safety belts and child seats is a challenge. Not wearing a seat belt while driving carries a fine of Dh400 but there are no laws making the use of child car seats or the wearing of seat belts for passengers compulsory. The only law regarding children in cars is a ban on children under the age of 10 from sitting in the front seat, an offence that also carries a Dh400 fine. When The National asked a group of parents if they were aware of any laws regarding child car safety, the responses included: "I believe that it is illegal for children under the age of seven to travel in a front seat" and "I believe the law states that children should be properly secured, but what good is that when nobody bothers to enforce it?".
Dr Taisser Atrak, the chairman of paediatrics at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, started a programme in June to ensure new babies leave the hospital in safety seats. The hospital has given away 550 seats and has 50 more reserved for special cases such as babies who were seriously ill when they were born.
"I believe we are the only hospital in the world who has been doing this apart from Hamad Medical Corporation in Qatar," says the Lebanese-born, US-trained doctor. "We are now going into Phase Two of the programme."
Phase Two will involve public demonstrations on how to use safety seats and educating new parents at Mafraq Hospital about the importance of safety seats and how to use them. "There's no use just giving people brochures - people throw them away rather than read them," he says.
He hopes that there will also be the resources to provide more car seats as the response from the 550 parents so far has been largely positive with a follow-up survey revealing that 80 per cent of parents are still using the seats.
"Five families refused seats," Dr Atrak says. "Two couldn't see the value in using them, two thought it was too time-consuming and one family didn't have a car but came back a week later asking for a seat after they purchased a car."
Dr Atrak says he is shocked at the parents who either could not see why safety seats are valuable or thought the process was too time-consuming. "It's more time-consuming to spend the rest of your life grieving over a lost child."
Educating the community and improving safety standards is a job for everyone, according to Dr Atrak. "Everyone has to get behind this - all hospitals, schools, the government support, police support, corporate support, car dealerships, carmakers - to educate the public about how effective car seats are."
Dr Nazih Bulbul, who works with Dr Atrak in Mafraq Hospital's paediatric department, agrees. "A lot of people don't know about the importance of safety seats, nobody has told them, but since we started the programme, we've had great feedback, most parents are very excited."
We interviewed a group of parents whose children were born in different hospitals in the UAE and not one received any advice on how to safely travel in a car with a baby from hospital staff. Joanna England, a British expat, gave birth to both her children in Dubai. "They were born at the American Hospital and not once were we asked if we'd purchased a child car seat," she says. "If you don't have a car seat to safely transport your baby in the UK, they even won't allow you to take the baby home from the hospital."
Kiran Sawlani, from India, had her daughter at the American Hospital earlier this year and also said that nothing was mentioned to her or her husband about child safety seats. "They just told us we should have one when the baby and mother are discharged from the hospital but that was told to us only after we asked," she said. The American Hospital did not respond to our request for a response to these claims.
The advice of other parents was more helpful, according to Sawlani. "We purchased our car seat two months before the baby was expected to arrive and a lot of research was put into it," she says. "The only advice was from other parents who had purchased the wrong seat so that stopped us from doing the same."
Ruth Bradley, a British expat who gave birth at Dubai's Welcare Hospital in 2005, says she received no advice on child car safety. But Dr Ottmar Schmidt, Welcare's director of marketing and public relations, says that since then the hospital has started to give car safety advice to parents before their children are born.
"Normally, people come to us before the baby is born to look at the hospital's facilities and meet the doctors and that is when we advise them to buy a car seat," says Dr Schmidt. "We cannot control what happens outside the hospital and ultimately the parents have the final responsibility for transport safety."
Jenny Bateman-Irish, a British expat, is pregnant with her first child but was concerned when her sister and two-year-old nephew recently visited the UAE and it was difficult to find taxis with child safety seats or even adequate safety belts. "There was no central belt in many of the taxis - not that that would have been the safest place for him anyway - so our nephew had to sit on one of our laps, which is not ideal," she says.
Bradley has become a one-woman crusader for improved child car safety and takes a forthright approach to educating parents whose children are not strapped in. "I now actually pull alongside cars that have children jumping around in them, while the driver is happily seatbelted in, and give them a serious rollicking," she says. "One of these days irony will rear its head and I will probably be arrested for abuse while the ignorant driver will get away scot-free with putting his or her child at risk." Joanna Langley, another parent in Dubai, adds it is important for parents to be aware of car safety facts that might not be as well publicised. "Even if you fit a baby's car seat in the front passenger side, you have to be aware of the fact that they would still be much safer in the back - and that if your car has an air bag, that alone could kill them in a crash," she says. While Bradley and Langley are both keen advocates of safe travelling with children, it is still clear that broader awareness is required. Education is an important part of the Buckle Up campaign as well as the programme at Mafraq Hospital, where all printed material is in English and Arabic. General Motors' sponsorship of the Buckle Up campaign is part of the company's corporate social responsibility programme and part of this is an education programme in malls. GM promoters have already given interactive child safety seat demonstrations in Dubai's BurJuman Mall and Ibn Battuta Mall, and from tomorrow to Nov 30, demonstrations will take place in the newly-opened Dubai Mall. A spokeswoman for GM also said that at a car dealership level, staff are undergoing training so they can educate customers about the benefits of child safety seats. Many voices are calling for the government to pass stricter laws making child car seats mandatory. Dr Atrak, Dr Schmidt and a spokeswoman for General Motors all told The National that this is a law that should be passed. "In America, it is estimated that 70 per cent more children survive car accidents or only have minor injuries [than before child seat laws were introduced] because of car seats," says Dr Atrak. Ebtisam Alkaaiti, an engineer for the National Transport Authority, is involved in the Buckle Up campaign and she has made a strong plea for legislative change. "The NTA is working on making child safety seats compulsory in the country and it will make it a law," she insists. A spokesman for the Dubai RTA has also called for stronger laws and told The National that the RTA is "campaigning to introduce legislation for the compulsory use of child safety seats." Dr Atrak believes using child safety seats is a moral issue that transcends legislative changes and sums it up succinctly. "Parents should use car seats because they want to protect their children, not because they want to avoid the police." email@example.com