More than a million people die on the roads every year, the vast majority in the developing world. In some age groups the deaths outpace those from diseases like AIDS and malaria and yet those receive far more attention and funding. We go to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to witness a slice of the global epidemic in road traffic injuries and what can be done about it. Download MP3
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LISA MULLINS: Hunger and poverty aren’t the only major causes of child mortality. Road traffic injuries kill more than a quarter of a million children each year, according to recent figures. Here’s another measure of the problem. More children between the ages of 5 and 14 die from traffic injuries on the road than from malaria or AIDS. And the issue doesn’t get anything like the attention, or the funding, that those diseases get. The World’s Jeb Sharp reports from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
JEB SHARP: Dar es Salaam’s traffic problems are obvious as soon as you arrive. I had barely left the airport before I saw my first accident. But nowhere did I find a scene more harrowing than the one outside Mtoni Primary School in one of the city’s poorest districts. It’s dismissal time and kids are spilling out of the school’s gates right onto a four-lane highway. Many of them live in the neighborhood on the other side of the road. And there’s no traffic light, no pedestrian crossing, no crossing guard.
TOM BISHOP: So there’s a young girl, maybe 10 years old, and she’s on the central reservation waiting to cross to her school. A huge truck with a 40-foot container going past and there she goes. She runs across, she makes it.
SHARP: That’s Tom Bishop, Africa Director for the road safety organization, Amend.
BISHOP: Where they cross is just beyond the brow of a hill with cars, trucks, buses shooting over the brow of the hill and the drivers can’t see the children. The children can’t see the cars until the last minute.
SHARP: And by then it can be too late. The school has 2500 pupils. In the past two years, twelve of them have been hit by cars on the road outside the school. Including Sizya Michael.
SIZYA MICHAEL: Still I feel pain especially the place where I got injured in my head.
SHARP: 12-year-old Sizya shows me the stretch of road where she was hit. It’s right outside the school. Tom Bishop’s colleague Josiah Matagane translates for me. And is this the place?
SHARP: Right there. So you… There. Yeah. And did the road seem as if it was clear?
SHARP: Sizya doesn’t remember much about the accident. She was crossing with a group of friends. They made it across but she didn’t. She was struck and thrown. Her friends told her later her head was covered in blood. The car that hit her didn’t stop, which I’m told is typical. At the hospital, doctors stitched up her head wound. They sent her home four days later. But she was out of school for six months, recovering from her injuries. And she’ still not the same.
MICHAEL: The problem now which I have after the crash is when I take long time to write because of bending, I feel pain in my right hand side of my head here with my neck.
SHARP: Inside the school, assistant head teacher Cocensia Sokoni welcomes us into her office. She explains that the road is a huge problem for the school.
SHARP: As you can see our school is close to the highway, Sokoni says, and there are no speedbumps to slow down the traffic, so many children get hurt. We’ve told the authorities, but nothing has been done, she says. The ironic thing is that the spike in accidents followed road “improvements.”
SHARP: The problem is that the road is good now, Sokoni says. Before it was a rough road, so the drivers had to go more slowly. But last year they finished the road improvements so the cars go really fast. That’s the biggest problem. And last year was especially bad. Nine children at Mtoni were hit by cars in 2009. Sokoni and her colleagues contacted everyone they could think of, from traffic and highway officials, to members of parliament. The regional traffic officer called the road safety group Amend and asked for help teaching traffic safety to the students at Mtoni. That’s why Tom Bishop and his colleague are here today.
BISHOP: So here Josiah, our program manager, is teaching a class of around 50 primary school children. He’s explaining the four lessons that we teach based around “Be seen, be safe” and explaining that at the end of the class we’ll teach them a song so they remember what they’ve learned.
SHARP: Josiah Matagane teaches the kids the basics. Look left and right and left again. Walk across the road, don’t run. Go straight across, not diagonally. It’s a shorter distance. Face the traffic when you’re walking down the road, that way you can jump aside if the cars come too close.
Later, outside, Matagane does a demonstration with a stone and a wet sponge. The stone is a car and the sponge is a human being. He makes the two collide in his hands. Water spurts out of the sponge and sprays some of the children. He asks them what the water represents. The answer of course is blood. Amend’s Tom Bishop says these classes work.
BISHOP: Education is where you can have a quick impact. Other solutions are engineering, enforcement of traffic laws, but these things don’t happen quickly. Things don’t happen overnight. With education we can go and teach two and a half thousand children simple, simple road safety messages and through this in a day we can save lives.
SHARP: Still, Amend wants more than safety classes. It wants to see officials take action to improve pedestrian safety outside Mtoni Primary School. Ideally by installing some speed bumps.
Tom Bishop takes me to see Eveline Mlay, acting regional manager at Tanroads, the government road agency. Mlay is remarkably frank about the dangers here.
EVELINE MLAY: When you cross the road you need to be very, very careful because most of the drivers they don’t respect the pedestrians, they don’t respect zebra crossings, and they drive in a very high speed.
SHARP: Mlay expresses concern about the situation at Mtoni but she admits there’s resistance to speed bumps. She says road engineers don’t like them because they slow the traffic and speed the deterioration of the roads. But she says pressure from the community can make a difference.
SHARP: If a lot of children are getting hit near Mtoni and people there come and ask you to put in speed bumps. Could you do that?
MLAY: Yeah, when they come and they complain that we have this number of people, a number of our children dying here, we normally put there speed bumps.
SHARP: Amazingly, none of the 12 kids hit near Mtoni in the past two years has died. 7 of them have permanent disabilities though. And two weeks ago, an adult pedestrian was killed in a hit and run on the same stretch of road. Perhaps that will spur the authorities to act. Meanwhile the folks at Amend will be doing everything they can to teach these kids how to survive the walk home. For The World, I’m Jeb Sharp, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
MULLINS: Jeb had a mic and a camera on the scene in Dar es Salaam. Take a look at her slideshow of the kids trying to cross the busy road home from school. It’s at TheWorld.org.
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