x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

In the front seat or the back, seat belts make good sense

Drivers and passengers in the UAE must adjust how they think about personal safety in moving vehicles, and take their well-being seriously.

Under normal circumstances, the distance between Hessa's car and the one in front would have been enough - about three car lengths. Travelling at only 40km per hour, there would have been plenty of time to stop.

But because the street was oily, when the car in front slowed unexpectedly, Hessa's car slid into the other car's bumper. Luckily, she and her sister Mariam were wearing their seat belts, and were only slightly injured. The car was totalled.

My friend Hessa is among a minority of drivers in the UAE who buckle up. The victims represented the majority. According to a study done by Salaheddin Bendak, an associate professor in the department of industrial engineering at the University of Sharjah, only two in five drivers wear seat belts, and only 43.4 per cent of front-seat passengers wear them.

Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in the UAE. Despite it being mandatory for front-seat passengers to wear a belt - enforced with a Dh400 fine and four black points for failing to do so - many people flout the rules. Traffic police have issued an increasing number of fines over the last year; between 2009 and 2010 alone, the number of tickets written went up by 83 per cent.

Wearing seat belt is not mandatory for back-seat passengers, and so the number is more shocking when it comes to unbuckled passengers in the back. A study conducted last year found that 99 per cent of back-seat passengers involved in accidents were not fastened in. Passengers in the back can have a false feeling of security, but when accidents happen, nothing can prevent them from being injured or killed.

Traffic police are considering introducing a law to require back-seat passengers to wear seat belts, which would definitely be a good step.

But laws and enforcement are not enough. Drivers and passengers in the UAE must adjust how they think about safety in moving vehicles, and take their well-being seriously.

Some people believe their destiny is already written, and so they don't need to worry about what might happen to them. So they don't bother to take protective measures. "That's a question of confidence in God," a taxi driver told The National last year. "God will save me."

Muslims believe God determines one's fate. But that does not mean, however, that we can't take safety precautions to protect ourselves and our children. Sadly, too few people seem to think this way.

Travel along any UAE roads and it's common to see children as young as two standing inside cars or lying on the back seats. These children are more prone to serious injuries in accidents. A study by the UAE University in 2008 showed that none of the children aged up to 14 who died in car crashes were wearing safety belts. Moreover, many parents don't put their children in safety seats despite the risks. And as children get older, many parents don't require that they are buckled up, especially when travelling to schools with family drivers.

This is a serious issue that everyone should consider, especially in the UAE, where 63 per cent of child deaths are caused by traffic accidents, according to Dubai Health Authority.

Parents have a responsibility to ensure children are safe on the roads, and every driver is responsible for the safety of every passenger in the car.

Tougher penalties could change attitudes, as Mr Bendak's study suggests that a fine of Dh400 and four black points might not be enough. About 80 per cent of respondents said that they would buckle up if they faced tougher penalties.

But buckling up should not only be done to avoid penalties, rather to be safer. A silver lining in Mr Bendak's study: a quarter of respondents gave answers suggesting that awareness campaigns and education can have an effect.

Drivers, no matter how experienced, get into accidents. As my friend Hessa knows too well, even the most conscientious of drivers can find themselves in a crash. And when accidents happen, it's better to be prepared for the impact.



On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui