Every year, the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital treats around a thousand children who have been involved in road traffic crashes.
Most are admitted with head injuries, which cause severe trauma to developing brains. Others have injuries to their arms and legs, which often have life-changing personal, economic, health and social consequences.
Those children are the lucky ones. The ones who do not survive become yet another shocking statistic: in Cape Town alone, 50 children are killed on the roads every year.
Road deaths and injuries are sudden, violent, traumatic events. Their impact is long-lasting, often permanent.
Unlike car parts, heads and brains cannot be replaced every time damage is done. Life is not a car part, says the United Nations, which has taken that theme for this year’s World Day of Remembrance for Crash Victims, on November 17.
The day commemorates the millions killed and injured on the world’s roads. Many victims are children, who are smaller, less visible, and have limited cognitive ability on the roads.
“The language we use to describe the incidents that cause children to be injured on the road needs to change,” says Alisagher Janmohammed, road safety project manager at child safety advocacy organisation, Childsafe.
The organisation is advocating for road safety to be seen as a public health concern.
Globally, road safety practitioners are trying to change the lexicon from “accidents”, which implies that the event was inevitable and couldn’t be avoided, to “crashes”, which are always preventable.
The good news is that every parent, care-giver and driver has it in their power to prevent children from being injured in motor vehicle crashes.
“Speed and inadequate in-car restraints are two of the biggest culprits in vehicle crashes,” says Mr Janmohammed.
“There is an urgent need for a better understanding of the impact of speed on the roads; and for reminding drivers that they are breaking the law if they do not restrain children in the car.”
Most children move in areas around schools and homes. The World Health Organisation suggests that 30 km/hour is the most appropriate speed limit in these places. Despite this, speed limits around residential properties and schools in South Africa remain set at 60 km/hour – a speed proven to put children at risk.
Mr Janmohammed explains: “Children do not comprehend speed the same way adults do. They have limited cognitive abilities, which restricts their ability to understand how fast a car is driving, or how far away it is. Children are smaller, too,
which means that drivers cannot see them easily in traffic.”
Cars travelling at higher speeds need longer distances to stop. If a driver is travelling at 60km/* – the standard speed limit on a residential road in South Africa – the driver requires 37 metres to stop before impact; nearly three times the distance. In those instances, there is a 90% chance that that child will die.
If a child enters a road at a distance of 13 metres from the front of a car, a car driving at 30km/* would have sufficient time to stop before hitting the child. The chance of fatal injury reduces to 10%.
Inside a car, even with the best intentions, parents and care-givers can put children at risk. South African law requires all children under the age of 3s to be restrained in an SABS-approved, age-appropriate car restraint. And yet, many still drive with a child on their lap or allow a child to stand up in the car.
“Adult passengers mistakenly believe that they are able to hold on to the child during a crash. If a crash happens, a child who is not restrained in an age-appropriate way is not safe. It’s a basic human instinct to stretch out our arms to protect ourselves in the event of a crash. When that happens, the child is has no protection at all,” says Mr Janmohammed.
If they are strapped into a restraint designed for their age, children have up to 80% chance of surviving a crash.
Think of two children. One is sitting on their parent’s lap in the front seat of a car. Another is playing on the street outside their home, with cars passing by. Both are at risk of being involved in a road crash. Even if the cars involved are travelling at 60km/* , in both instances, the chances of each child surviving are very slim. If they do survive, it’s likely they would suffer severe or life-threatening injuries.
Think again of the two children, in a world in which drivers are more child-aware. The child in the car has been strapped into an appropriate restraint, securely installed in the back seat of the car. The child on the road plays on the street, but passing cars are travelling at a revised speed limit of 30km/* . In the first instance, the restrained child escapes the crash unscathed, or with minimal injury. In the second, the driver travelling at a lower speed is able to stop in time.
It’s human nature to think “it won’t happen to me”; that we’re a good enough driver to manage any emergency situation. But road crashes often occur because of the behaviour of others. By making the correct choices, in terms of driving speed and installing suitable car restraints, the chances that children will survive those incidents are vastly improved.
* Information supplied by Childsafe