MANAMA // Traffic safety experts from across the Gulf, meeting in Manama last weekend, called for a concerted regional effort to curb road accidents, which claim 40,000 lives across the Arab world each year, according to the Arab Organisation for Road Safety.
About 100 traffic and emergency medical staff, engineers, academics, representatives of the insurance industry and politicians gathered on Saturday and Sunday for the conference, organised by the Bahraini ministry of health and titled Road Traffic Injury: the Ongoing Tragedy, in an attempt to identify key challenges in improving road safety and work towards a region-wide policy. "It is a pandemic," Wahid AlKharusi, an orthopaedic and trauma surgeon from Oman, said in an address to the conference, which was the first of its kind in Bahrain. "In the past six months governments across the world spent millions of dollars to address H1N1, where at the end of the day no more than 300 people died. Yet road traffic crashes claim the lives of 1.8 million people worldwide each year and 40 to 45 times as many are injured.
"Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among the youth; it is not malaria, not tuberculosis, and not Aids. They should not be called accidents because [car crashes are] predictable and anything that is predictable is preventable," he said. Dr AlKharusi called for the creation of a Gulf regional network that would share information and jointly implement policies and programmes to improve road safety.
"It is a global problem that is why we need to politicise and make it a political issue so we can move forward," he said. Reem Akbari, the head of the Centre for Transport and Road Studies at the University of Bahrain, pointed out that most accidents are the result of easily preventable mistakes like not wearing a seat belt, speeding and people driving without being fully qualified. "Driving is a responsibility. We cannot blame youth and novice drivers if we do not properly train them," Mrs Akbari told the conference.
"Parents also have a responsibility toward monitoring their children be they pedestrians - where 23.63 per cent of the pedestrian causalities in Bahrain were under the age of 10 - or drivers," she said. Dr AlKharusi and Mrs Akbari both called for road safety awareness programmes for young people, an idea that already seems to be gaining traction in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. One Saudi blogger, Essam al Zamel, recently posted a bracing statistic: There were 6,000 deaths in Saudi Arabia in 2009 as a result of road accidents, against 4,500 deaths in Iraq in the same period due to terrorism.
"I wanted to show how bad the situation is by putting it in perspective. I really pray every day that my kids get back safely if they are going out somewhere. It feels like we are in a war," Mr al Zamel said, adding that he is planning to create a short movie about Saudi's high road-death toll. According to Saudi Arabia's General Directorate of Traffic, 17 people die each day in crashes across the kingdom.
Dr AlKharusi pointed out that the people who are killed or injured in traffic crashes are usually of the most productive age group - 15 to 39 years old - and that the global annual cost of road crashes is estimated to be US$500 billion (Dh1.84 trillion). "In the developing world, road crashes cost the governments approximately $100bn, which is twice the total development assistance received worldwide," he said.
Dr AlKharusi added that road crashes account for 15 per cent of premature deaths worldwide. Amjad Obeid, an emergency doctor at Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC) hospital in Manama, lamented that road deaths and injuries in the region were extraordinarily high. "These figures are the highest in the world compared to any other region, but they can be addressed through better engineering, more education and awareness, stronger law enforcement and continued evaluation," Dr Obeid said.
Jassim al Mehza, the head of the accident and emergency department at SMC, said that last year the hospital had to handle 1,019 cases of car crashes, with each case requiring an average stay in hospital of 6.3 days, amounting to a total of 1,200 days of bedside medical care at the hospital. "If we calculate the cost of care for each patient on an average of 200 [Bahraini] dinars [Dh1,950] to 300 dinars, then the figures will be in the millions," he said.
Dr Obeid said Bahraini experts at the conference, which organisers aim to make an annual event, had passed on several recommendations to the Bahraini minister of health. These included the establishment of a national road safety commission and holding an annual meeting for road safety experts. According to the United Nations, 1.8 million people are killed on the world's roads each year. Last month, the UN launched The Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020, which aims to reduce cut global road deaths by 50 per cent in 10 years.