‘Road safety’ in critical danger | Sunday Observer

‘Road safety’ in critical danger

Every day, the increasing number of deaths of children and youth in road crashes show that Sri Lanka needs to look at the road safety issues more critically. It must take measures to strengthen policies and laws with regard to road safety, especially to ensure the safety of vulnerable road users such as children and youth.

Last year, 105 children between the ages of 1–15 years and 464 youths between 14 and 25 years died in road crashes. Three wheelers and motorbikes are linked to a large number of youth deaths in the island.

In Sri Lanka there is no ‘safety culture’ when it comes to road users. “Our parents love their kids and protect them from every danger. But the safety culture on roads is not something they are concerned about,” says Dr. Achala Jayatilleke, Senior Lecturer of the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine in Colombo, a road safety expert.

Dr. Jayatilleke, who spoke at a South East Asian seminar on ‘Road Safety’ last week said, road Traffic Crashes (RTCs) have become a major public health issue in Sri Lanka at present. According to medical findings, children up to 7 years do not have the capability to make judgments on their own on many things, a key one being ‘speed’. Children, therefore, are not able to judge the speed when on the road, unaware of the danger they face. This is a crucial issue that parents should be aware of.

Regarding child safety, there are no laws in Sri Lanka on child restrain and booster seats. Most parents either are not aware, or pay no attention to their children’s safety.

“For instance, most parents do not know the best place to keep a child in a car, and with what measures. The second issue with children’s safety on the road is that they do not wear helmets when they travel on motorbikes,” he said.

In general, helmet use by motorbike riders in Sri Lanka is quite good among the adults. Unfortunately, the same safety precautions are not taken when it comes to taking children on motorcycles, as children without helmets are a common sight.

“It could be an economic issue,” says a World Health Organization (WHO) official. “Most parents find it difficult to keep buying helmets for their children every two years, as they need to be replaced to keep pace with their physical growth. Therefore, a children’s helmet law should only be enforced, after the affordability factor is sorted out,” Prof. Gururaj Gopalakrishna, WHO Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Safety promotion said.

The same may be true in Sri Lanka for baby car seats which are sold between Rs 12,000 to 25,000. “Countries can enforce laws, but, if people cannot afford to, for instance, buy helmets for their children and to buy a baby car seat, what is the purpose of imposing such regulations?” Prof. Gopalakrishna asked.

He noted how other countries have tackled the issue in a practical manner. In Cambodia, for instance, a government agency donated helmets for children as a measure to increase helmet use among them. Vietnam has set up a non-profit helmet factory. In Tanzania children are given high visibility kids’ backpacks as a road safety measure.

In 2015, in Sri Lanka, 2,722 people perished in road crashes, according to the data available at the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine. Another 7,719 became seriously injured and 13,095 ‘escaped’ with minor injuries. Altogether, 13,514 people got affected in 37,129 crashes last year. About 30 to 40 percent of deaths occurred in government hospitals.

Speaking on the status of road safety in Sri Lanka, the magnitude of road crashes and plans and strategies for the Road Safety Week, Dr. Jayatilleke said that in Sri Lanka most crashes occur due to speeding, followed by overtaking. “However, our problem cannot just be attributed to human factors such as lack of respect for pedestrians, reckless driving and indiscipline. There are policy gaps, and road and vehicle safety issues which are not geared for ensuring a safe commute for our children,” he said.

Safety measures for children:

* Car seats; Lap/Shoulder belt in school bus

* Bike helmets

* Policy related challenges:

None of the South and East Asian Region countries (SEAR, including Sri Lanka. have national policies to separate vulnerable road users from high–speed traffic

They have a weak legislation on five key risk factors - Speed, drink-driving, helmets, seat belts, and child restraints

* Weak enforcement of laws on these key risk factors

Only two countries apply any of the seven priority vehicle safety standards. No country applies all seven.

* Post crash care - universal telephone number lacking, quality care lacking