Child car safety: How South Africa’s laws fall short

What has government done to ensure children’s safety while they are transported on our roads? Angelique Ruzicka interviews Hector Elliot, chief director of Safely Home and Road Safety Co-ordination of the Western Cape government’s department of transport and public works to find out more.

It’s not uncommon to see parents who don’t buckle up their children, use the appropriate car seats for babies or let them hang out the windows as they speed down the highway. What they often fail to realise is that they could do more to ensure their children survive a possible crash.

“We don’t have data for the whole country but we did an analysis from 2011, 2012 and 2013 in the Western Cape. It showed that there were 146 children aged between 0-14 killed as passengers in vehicles in the Western Cape alone,” says Hector Elliot, chief director of Safely Home and Road Safety Co-ordination of the Western Cape government’s department of transport and public works.

“Of those 146, 78 bodies were recovered outside of the vehicle after the crash, which is an almost certain indication that the individual wasn’t buckled up. On average one child is thrown out of a vehicle every two weeks in the Western Cape. I believe that on a national level you can safely say that the national figure is 20-25 every two weeks or 50 a month,” he adds.

What does the law say?
As of Friday there was an amendment to the National Road Traffic Act which states that children aged 0-3 years must be seated on an ‘appropriate child seat’. “It doesn’t say that but the appropriate seat for a baby is a rear facing child seat,” explains Eliott.

The law does not apply to children taken on public transport services such as taxis or buses. More still needs to be done and Eliott points out that South Africa’s laws, despite this change still falls woefully short of international best practice and regulations, such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and even South Africa’s very own constitution and Child Protection Act.

Sadly, it is doubtful whether South Africa will now act swiftly to catch up to international standards when it comes to child safety in cars. “[The initial law] didn’t make child seats mandatory for babies. We objected to that and that has now been incorporated in the actual amendment. That took 16 months. [When it comes to the] process from here I would be surprised if it would take less than two years. The advantage of that is that it takes the public and the private sector to respond,” says Eliott.

Meanwhile the Automobile Association (AA) explains on its website that a baby should be in an approved and preferably rear-facing child seat. Older children (15-25kgs) should be secured in a booster seat with a seatbelt on, preferably in the rear of the vehicle. The AA does, however, add that the [Road Traffic] Act is silent as to the minimum weight for a child to sit in the front seat of a car.

What can you do as a citizen?
As a driver you would obviously be responsible for your own safety and that of your family’s. It is mandatory to wear a seat belt according to traffic laws but there are still many people that ignore this rule.

But what happens if you, as a law abiding citizen, see someone else ignoring road safety laws by driving recklessly or not buckling up their children properly or putting their baby in a rear facing car seat.

The Western Cape, for instance, gives drivers the ability to complain via their ‘Safely Home’ website. It has a ‘reporter’ page where you can report on other citizens if they do wrong on the road. You can upload pictures and videos too. You can also name and shame drivers on ‘Drive like a chop’ website.

But the jury is still out on whether these services will actually do any good in the long run. When asked, Eliott admits that no citizen gets fined or taken to court over pictures, videos or complaints posted on the Safely Home website. “There are no prosecutions or fines handed out to members of the public. [For that to happen you] would have to open a case. You can’t use an email from someone and use that to open up a case against them,” he explains.

However, he does add that action can be taken against drivers who provide a public transport service: “The Provincial Regulating Entity is part of our department, and is responsible for licensing of public transport vehicles. We do not need a SAPS case to open Section 79 proceedings (Section 79 of the National Land Transport Act), in terms of which we may suspend or cancel the operating license of public transport operators who commit serious offences.”

Your family’s safety in your hands
This means that safety, particularly the safety of children, is largely in the hands drivers. Some say that car seats are too expensive for poor families to purchase but Eliot believes that this is no excuse. He argues that if the a law were introduced to make car seats for infants and young children mandatory then prices will come down.

“The number of suppliers in car seats has improved substantially. China is piloting mandatory car seats starting in Shanghai in June so as a world leading manufacturer which places a high premium on its own children we expect to see cheaper car seats on the market once China has responded to that change,” he says.

He also points out that there are non-governmental organisations such as ‘Drive More Safely’, that offer free car seats to the poor. More importantly, he adds that it doesn’t make sense for parents to say that they can’t afford a child car seat if they can afford a car. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s a once off investment and is invaluable,” says Eliott.

Eliott’s top tips on road safety:

1. Don’t mix alcohol and the road whether you are a driver or walker.
2. Wear a seatbelt. Wearing a seatbelt drastically increases your chances of survival and prevents you from being ejected.
3. Don’t use your cell phones while driving. “Leave your phone alone even if you have a hands-free kit as it increases the levels of distractions [for drivers] hugely,” points out Eliott.
4. Don’t drive while tired. “Fatigued drivers can be as dangerous as drunk drivers,” says Eliott.
5. Don’t speed. Eliott says South Africans have a love affair with speed which is dangerous, “People are convinced that it doesn’t play a role in accidents but everything can exacerbate it. It’s not worth it driving a little bit faster.”