Traffic Safety: No Act of Fate – Accidents take lives of hundreds – many in their prime years – in both Latin America and the C’bean

Crop Over is soon here, and I was looking at PAHO’s newsletter about vehicular mishaps and although it referred to the Caribbean, the closest they got was by Costa Rica, the story primarily dealt with South American territories and the horrors they cause long after the wreckage is hauled away!

Yet I could not help but recall the bus and van tragedies that surrounded Kadooment and Emancipation last year, I am sure there were other terrible accidents in the rest of the region, but naturally the Bajan events are the ones we’re very familiar with, so for a few moments I am going to look at both last year and see how it melds with what PAHO is worried about –

In October 2006, a group of high school students from Buenos Aires were returning from a field trip to a rural school, where they had met and shared experiences with students from very different, less privileged backgrounds. On a highway in the province of Santa F?, a truck collided head-on with their van. Nine of the students, aged 15 to 17 years, died in the crash, along with their teacher and two bus drivers.

The truck driver had stopped at a bar to watch the Cl?sico, a match between Argentina’s two biggest soccer clubs. When he got back behind the wheel of his truck, his blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit for noncommercial drivers (truck drivers are not legally allowed to drink at all in Argentina).

But other factors contributed to the crash. The truck driver was not properly licensed. The bus driver tried to swerve, a witness said, but there was no shoulder along the road.

The cause wasn’t just a man who got drunk,” says Lucila de la Serna de Bravo, whose son Benjamin died in the crash. “There were many causes. This is a major international road … yet it didn’t even have a shoulder.”

Some might have ascribed the terrible loss of young lives to a cruel twist of fate. But Benjamin’s mother sees it differently. For her and the other parents who lost their children, the “Santa F? Tragedy” could have and should have been prevented.

Now, this is where some aspects of the case can be juxtaposed with what happened at the Mullins Bay tragedy when a driver already probated on drugs-related charges was allegedly involved in the possible vehicular manslaughter of two infants, one teen and an adult! Here was one of my main concerns at that time and continues even now –

…. should a study not be done on if bus passengers must be belted? In the Dominican Republic, only the driver has no belt, but he must have a legal permit to exempt himself…

As you see, even before this PAHO item came to light I drew reference to our Spanish-speaking neighbours on shedding some sanity on an insane and sad situation. Yet as massive a problem as it is – part of the reason it persists is that statistically for the moment, is that there are other challenges with higher body-counts, it will only be when those figures rise that folks will start to act!

Throughout Argentina, some 4,000 people die every year on the roads, according to official figures, and 20 times that number are injured. But compared with other Latin American and the Caribbean countries, Argentina does not even rank in the top ten in traffic fatality rates. On an average day across the region, traffic crashes kill 350 drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians and injure 3,000 more. For young people from 5 to 29, road crashes are one of the top two causes of death in the region.

At the global level, more than 1.2 million people die annually and 20-50 million are seriously injured in traffic crashes, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Nine out of 10 traffic deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. WHO estimates rates will rise more than 65 percent worldwide in the next two decades, increasing fastest in the developing world and claiming more lives than malaria, tuberculosis, or HIV/AIDS.

The growing problem compelled the United Nations General Assembly to hold discussions on road safety for the first time in its history in 2004. It passed a unanimous resolution to improve road safety and called on member governments to treat the problem as a public health issue. In April 2007, the first U.N. Global Road Safety Week was held on April 23-27 to raise awareness of the importance of the problem, particularly among young people.

When the July 2007 tragedy happened with Lucky Horseshoe staff, the Barbados Underground was very adamant in how it should have been handled –

  • We want to state for the record that Minister Dale Marshall should relax a little. This is not a time to score cheap political points. Is in your face approach given his ?dead pan? personality came over to us as being not appropriate.
  • The Party Monarch Finals on the East Coast should have been canceled. Some novel way of splitting the prize money among on the performers could have been done. BU is abolutely sure that patrons would have understood. People in and out of Barbados would have understood.

Colombia and Costa Rica have taken steps to reduce and control the level of such man-made catastrophes –

One such case is Bogot?, Colombia, where a series of actions helped cut traffic deaths by more than half between 1995 and 2005. Among the key measures were:

  • Creation of a unified crash reporting system
  • Better enforcement of speed and blood-alcohol limits
  • Replacement of corrupt or inefficient safety officials
  • Identification of traffic “hotspots” where incidents occur most frequently
  • Improved infrastructure including overpasses and walkways for pedestrians
  • Campaigns to promote seat belt use and respect for pedestrians at crosswalks
  • Removal of vendors and parked cars from overcrowded pedestrian areas
  • Greater police presence to increase pedestrian confidence.
Through these and other measures, Colombia reduced the number of road deaths nationwide from 8,900 in 1998 to 5,400 in 2006, a decline of 39 percent…

Costa Rica, which has seen a 171 percent increase in the number of motor vehicles on its roads since 2000, has nevertheless managed to reduce traffic death rates by 17 percent in the same period through efforts focused on increasing seat belt use, improving driver training, enforcing of speed and alcohol restrictions, and raising awareness about pedestrian safety.

If enforcement of traffic laws is vital, then Caribbean lawpersons MUST accept the value of Citizen/Participatory Journalism in tracking and cracking down on such vehicular perpetrators!

There would seem to be the need for a clear policy on how the police/journalist interactions should take place in these events. It is unrealistic to believe that the press will not be present at a mass casualty situation. It is unrealistic to believe that they will not try to cover the event. While the victims have a right to dignity and privacy, there is the issue of freedom of the press and the right of the public to know. With the lack of a consistent policy on this matter, we will continue to see stories like this in the media.

Rather than merely accept a sideline opinion, here is a more freely expressed view –

…the Nation News journalist had taken photos that no one else took – not even the police – and in all the efforts to remove the living and the dead no one else took photos of the bus and the scene exactly as it was at that time.

Between the time that [Rawle] Culbard started taking photos and the police destroyed his work, victims both dead and living were removed from the bus and various interior and exterior bus components were removed from their after-crash positions as rescuers worked to save lives.

Only Culbard’s photos had those original details, and the police destroyed them. According to our police source, Senior Police Superintendent Broomes could care less about the assault on two journalists, but he is embarrassed about destroying evidence that is now proven to have been valuable.

If those photos were still available, may not have someone been held accountable all like now for what should have never happened at all? Unfortunately, that is mere speculation now… What is certain is that there are future generations here and in Latin America drastically altered by what need not have happened at all –

[Dr Simone] Abib knows the consequences for failing to act. As head of trauma education at S?o Paulo’s Federal University Hospital, she’s seen thousands of children stream through the hospital every year from road crashes. They come with abdominal trauma, head trauma, thoracic injuries, broken bones.

I remember one 8-year-old boy, he was run over by a bus, and he had a hip bone fracture. He couldn’t walk for months. I told him, my Christmas gift for you this year is to be able to walk,” Abib says.

Many of the children she treats were struck by cars while walking on the side of a road. Sidewalks are nonexistent in many parts of Brazilian cities, especially in poorer areas. And many children are left unattended when their parents go to work.

As a result, traffic injuries are the leading external (non-disease) cause of death of children under 14 in Brazil. And for children who aren’t killed, injuries from a car crash can become a life-long burden.

In children, we have to think long term. When they’re disabled, it’s a huge loss for the children, for the family, and for society,” Abib says.

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