x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UAE road safety: even giving away child seats for free failed

The lack of laws enforcing the use of child car seats is a big problem but cultural attitudes, misplaced pride and lack of awareness of the life-saving benefits also play a part, writes Anna Zacharias.

A child seat undergoes a 55kph crash test at a testing facility in the United States. A properly fitted child seat in a car can save a child’s life in the event of a crash, yet many Emirati parents fail to use them. Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg
A child seat undergoes a 55kph crash test at a testing facility in the United States. A properly fitted child seat in a car can save a child’s life in the event of a crash, yet many Emirati parents fail to use them. Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg

Despite numerous road-safety initiatives and even a scheme to give them away free, Emirati parents are still shunning the use of child seats in their cars, researchers have found.

The preliminary survey by UAE University found the belief that children were safer in their mother’s arms was a common misconception, while the perceived inconvenience of using safety seats meant that only one in five parents used them for infants.

Even when children were placed in seats, many parents did not use them correctly, researchers discovered, and seats that were given away free by hospitals as part of a road-safety initiative were found to be left unused and gathering dust at home.

Only one in five parents always use a safety seat for children under two, while four out of 10 never use a seat for children between the ages of two and four, the survey found.

“Based on our findings, we believe that immediate and urgent legislative action and enforcement related to mandatory car safety-seat use for children under the age of eight should take place in the UAE, along with culturally appropriate public information campaigns,” the study concludes.

The research, conducted last year and in the spring this year, was led by Nicole Bromfield, an assistant professor of social work, in conjunction with Andrew Hund, an assistant professor of sociology.

The report found social norms and the convenience of not using a child seat outweigh its perceived benefits for many parents.

There was a belief that it was safer for a child to be held in an adult’s arms, that car seats are unnecessary or “heartless”, and that they take up too much space, the study discovered.

Of those who do use car seats, few used the harness to secure the child, a habit that can be more dangerous than not using the seat at all. Fewer than one in three respondents said that they always buckle the harness, and 16 per cent never use it.

While this behaviour can be deadly, it is also perfectly legal. Car seats are not mandatory, despite years of debate over legislation covering the use of child car seats.

The correct use of car seats can reduce the likelihood of car-crash deaths by 70 per cent in infants, and by 54 to 80 per cent in small children, according to the World Health Organisation.

Emirati parents, however, remain sceptical about their proven effectiveness. Embarrassment, fatalism and a lack of understanding about the function of a car seat are some of the reasons given for not using child car seats, according to focus groups organised as part of the study.

Education, legislation and active enforcement are essential to counter these misperceptions, the report says.

The research is the first to examine behaviour, knowledge and attitudes towards car safety seats among Emirati parents. Researchers now plan to expand it to a larger sample of nationals and other nationalities.

The preliminary study, supported by a grant from UAE University, included three focus groups of Emirati women and an online survey of 312 Emirati parents, the majority of whom were women. The focus group discussions were used to formulate survey questionnaires in English and Arabic.

“Some participants mentioned that they would feel embarrassed to use a car safety seat, as it would indicate that they did not trust the driving ability of their husband or hired driver and that they would have to explain to their mothers and grandmothers the need to use car safety seats,” the study says.

“The participants’ perception was that their mothers and grandmothers would think that it would be cruel and unsafe not to have their baby/babies in their or another caregiver’s arms while riding in a vehicle.

“Fatalism was also mentioned as an important factor, with the premise being that the child will be protected unless it is the child’s fate that he or she should die.”

“I think that it is human nature to feel like a baby is most protected while in a mother’s arms and it can obviously be more comfortable for both mother and baby and easier to feed the baby while on a road trip,” said Dr Bromfield.

“People don’t realise that when they are moving in a vehicle at 120kph, that the baby will essentially be flying out of the mother’s arms at 120kph upon an impact. 

“Early car-seat public information campaigns in the US really focused on this issue, as it does feel better and seem more protective to have the baby in the mother’s arms while riding down the road – but this is simply not the case.”

Lower-income Emirati parents were more likely to use a car seat for their firstborn than high-income Emiratis, even though they were less likely to own a seat in the first place.

The study found that 40 per cent of middle and high-income respondents never place their child in a car seat, compared with 24.5 per cent of low-income Emiratis.

Less well-educated parents are also less likely to use a child seat. Slightly more than two out of three of those who did not finish high school said that they never place their child in a safety seat.

The situation among the better-educated parents seemed counter-intuitive.

About one in three of those with limited college education said they always or usually used a child seat, yet among parents with a college degree, the figure dropped to only one in five.

The study also indicated that Emirati parents often fail to use seat belts themselves, despite existing laws that make it compulsory for front-seat passengers to buckle up. Three out of four respondents said they never, seldom or occasionally use a seat belt. Only 12 per cent of parents always use a seat belt.

Low-income Emiratis were the least likely to use a seat belt, with almost two in three reporting that they never or seldom used a one.

More than one in three middle and high-income respondents said they seldom or never use their own seat belt.

Unlike studies elsewhere, a better education did not correspond with more seat belt use.

Emirati parents with four years of college education or higher are twice as likely to not wear a seat belt as those who did not complete high school. The most likely to buckle up were those with a high-school diploma, with 17.9 per cent reporting that they use seat belts.

Yet many parents who do not use seat belts in the UAE use them abroad in western nations where they are legally required to do so.

Meanwhile Government, hospital and private initiatives that give away free child seats appear to have had little impact on their use.

Laws alone will not change behaviour, as indicated by the low level of adult seat-belt use. The law requiring seat-belt use for front seat passengers was passed in 1998.

“Barriers to car-seat usage that need to be further explored, other than the lack of behavioural norms around car-seat use, are the shortage of physical police presence on the roads and the use of highly tinted windows by motorists, which could prevent enforcement of any mandatory child car safety-seat laws,” said the study.

Large families pose another challenge. The average household in the survey had nine members, including 3.69 children, making it difficult to fit multiple child seats in one vehicle.

The study’s initial findings are “gold dust” for educators and campaigners, said Britta Lang, a principal road-safety scientist at the Transport Research Laboratory, a British consultancy.

“What the results seem to show is that it’s a deeply social phenomenon,” she said. “It’s not just about the attitudes of an individual but it’s about attitudes that are based on peer perceptions and social perceptions.

“That also means that certain interventions, such as certain campaigns about ‘keep your child safe, use a belt’, are not going to be successful. You need to work in a much more subtle way and in the appropriate way. There are a raft of issues that you really need to address and you can’t just target the individual in isolation.”

Societal acceptance is perhaps the largest barrier to overcome.

Campaigns aimed at parents alone will fall short, said Ms Lang.

“It’s changing the perception of everybody involved in the group, everybody that gets in the car,” she said.

azacharias@thenational.ae