While improving infrastructure, keep our streets safe for children

People gather at the site of a motorcycle accident in Phnom Penh
People gather at the site of a motorcycle accident in Phnom Penh and answer questions for police last year. Heng Chivoan

While improving infrastructure, keep our streets safe for children

Walking, cycling, and travelling by car, motorcycle or public transport have become dangerous endeavours for our children. Developing our road transport systems should not come at the expense of our youth, yet on a daily basis, news media report their tragic deaths in road traffic crashes.

The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, around 186,300 children perish on the roads each year, one every three minutes. Hundreds more children are injured every day, many severely.

These traumatic events cause immeasurable suffering and grief, and at times economic hardship for families and friends. In addition, they cost societies precious resources, diverting these from other pressing health and development challenges.

In Cambodia, 239 children die on our roads every year. Similarly to adults, the vast majority (84 per cent) are pedestrians, motorcycle passengers and cyclists, the “vulnerable” road users. This reflects an historic favouritism towards motorised transport, the result of which is that our roads are constructed without due consideration for the communities they pass through. A shift in mind set is desperately needed to ensure that roads everywhere serve the needs of and are safe for all who use them, including children.

Such a change is imperative for ongoing efforts to promote healthy lifestyles. The walking, cycling and other physical activity that would do much to curb overweight and obesity in children will inevitably bring them into contact with the road. It is only if those roads are made safe that children will be inclined to use them and their parents and other caregivers will allow and encourage them to do so.

Many of the children who are victims of this man-made calamity are poor. Attempts to address road safety for children are, therefore, inextricably linked to notions of social justice, and should be part of global efforts to reduce poverty.

In those countries which have demonstrated the greatest declines in road traffic death and injury, strong laws and stringent enforcement of those laws, enhancements in the safety of roads and vehicles, and improvements to emergency care services have proved to make a difference. The United Nation’s Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011–2020 offers a broad framework for taking these and other actions to keep children safe on the road.

While no single measure adequately addresses the vast range of risks to children on the road, the 10 following strategies are those which are best known – especially when implemented as a package – to keep children safe on the roads:

• Controlling speed

• Reducing drinking and driving

• Using helmets for bicyclists and motorcyclists

• Restraining children in vehicles

• Improving children’s ability to see and be seen

• Enhancing road infrastructure

• Adapting vehicle design

• Implementing graduated driver licensing

• Providing appropriate care for injured children

• Supervising children around roads

In response to this man-made tragedy, the royal government of Cambodia has made a great achievement through its passage of the new robust road traffic law in January this year. It is an important step for improving road safety with the aim of reducing road crashes and the deaths and injuries that result. The new law addresses key risk factors including speeding, drink-driving and nonuse of helmets with fines increased up to five times the old law with hefty penalties.

The new law also limits the number of people per motorcycle to two adults and one child. And all motorcycle users (including children age 3 and above) are required to wear a helmet correctly. When enforced, the new law will prove an important tool to reduce road traffic deaths and injuries and save many lives.

Phnom Penh City Hall’s introduction of public bus services could be another positive step towards reducing traffic congestion deaths and injuries. Much more could be done. Improved roadways with separate lanes for motorcyclists are one idea. Motorcycles comprise more than 80 per cent of the road traffic but share the road with four-wheeled and heavy vehicles.

The Third UN Global Road Safety Week, 4-10 May 2015, is a milestone in the Decade of Action. The Week, through its global campaign #SaveKidsLives, seeks to highlight the plight of children on the world’s roads and generate action to better ensure their safety. Implementing the package of ten key strategies noted here would do much to achieve the goal of the Decade of Action to save five million lives, and would make a significant contribution towards creating more vibrant and liveable communities and attaining safe and sustainable transport to the benefit of all who use the roads.

Dr Dongil Ahn is the World Health Organization representative in Cambodia.

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