Be road safe these holidays Erica du Toit

As I write this article, the schools have just closed and so many families are considering, or already on their way to, spending time away from it all.  We know from past years that the holidays around the Easter weekend are notorious for the high incidence of deaths and serious injury on our roads.

Such injuries can lead to spinal cord injury or severe brain injury and it is for this reason that we as an organisation of and for persons with disabilities, raise awareness on ways in which to prevent severe impairments.  We join one of our partner organisations, the QuadPara Association of South Africa, as they urge motorists to “Buckle Up” and wear their seatbelt so as to prevent serious injury or spinal cord injury in the event of an accident.

For motorists, another rapidly increasing danger threatens our safety – distractions while driving.  We all know it is against the law to speak on your cellphone while driving (although how many people do we see every day who ignore this?!), but this is only a small part of the overall culture of distracted driving.  We’ve all done it – change radio stations, broken up the kid’s fight in the back seat, eating, applying make-up, checking the road map or GPS, read a billboard for a little too long, and many others.

Perhaps the most dangerous of all behaviours is text messaging.  Goodyear SA’s third annual Road Safety Survey addressed the road behaviour of 6400 drivers under the age of 25 in 15 European countries as well as in South Africa.  The survey revealed that the most common behaviours were drinking (75%), eating (71%), looking at a map, changing GPS settings, shaving, putting on make-up, styling hair and even kissing (33%).  It also established that young South African drivers are among the most easily misled.

These are sobering statistics – in fact, quite scary!  Why do we feel we can multi-task behind the wheel of a car?  Are our lives so busy that we are prepared to risk injury or death just so that we can cram more tasks into our day?  Or do we all suffer from FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out?  There are those of us who are convinced that “it can’t happen to me”.

Whatever our reasoning, the purpose of this article is to say to you :“It can, and it will!”

The Western Cape Association for Persons with Disabilities deals with disability every day.  We have encountered so many people who have said: “It happens in an instance!” and “If only I’d…”.  The truth is that we are all susceptible to disability in some or other way, and if we don’t sustain a disability now, our chances of sustaining a disabling impairment increases exponentially as we age.  It is each individual’s responsibility to recognise this and take steps to prevent potentially dangerous situations.  We wouldn’t go bungee-jumping without a safety cord?  Why then, would we deliberately put ourselves behind the wheel of a car (a potentially dangerous weapon), and not give driving our full attention?  This is not about ourselves only, but includes other motorists, passengers and pedestrians who may bear the consequences of our own actions.

Speaking of the consequences to pedestrians, people with disabilities are often forgotten when it comes to road safety as they are sometimes not seen as road users.  Well, they are!  Many persons with disabilities are independent and go about their daily lives just as anyone else, including the use of roads and pavements.  Any distraction on the part of the motorist, could be fatal!

We have compiled 5 simple ways in which you can consider persons with disabilities when on our roads.

  • Understand that persons with disabilities are also road users

Persons with disabilities are equal citizens in all aspects of the law and should be given the same consideration afforded to any other road user.

  • Stop your vehicle before the road markings

It is all too easy to allow one’s vehicle to nudge over stop lines.  However, persons with disabilities require a clear area in which to cross the road.  Persons with visual impairments rely on their hearing to judge their distance from your vehicle, so don’t stop too far away – especially applicable to vehicles with very quiet engines.  We’ve heard of many incidents where someone’s white cane has been driven over and broken when a motorists passes too close to the pavement, not realising that while the person remains standing on the pavement, their white cane is naturally a little in front of them.

  • Be patient

Persons with disabilities may be slower so allow them sufficient time to cross safely.  Bear in mind that wheelchair users are not able to react as quickly and may have difficulty in changing direction suddenly if you pull away while they are still crossing.  Constant revving of one’s vehicle or hooting will also only further distress the individual.  Remember too that some road users are hearing impaired and may not hear your vehicle, so be alert at all times.

There are also many instances where wheelchair users are forced to travel in the road due to a lack of access to the pavement, or no pavement at all!  Be careful when you see someone travelling in the road – they are doing so because there is absolutely no other way. 

  • Look before you drive

Persons in wheelchairs are naturally out of our line of sight as are guide or service dogs, so be sure to look lower than usual.  This is especially true when driving a truck of panel van.

I recall a horrific accident at a set of traffic lights near our offices where a large truck pulled away as soon as the lights went green, and in so doing, rode over a man in a power wheelchair who was still crossing in front of him, killing him.  In this case, the traffic lights were found to be at fault as they had not been programmed to remain on orange long enough for those crossing the road to reach the other side safely before changing to red, and have since been rectified, but patience from drivers will always be essential.

  • Be vigilant at curb ramps & pedestrian crossings

Extra vigilance is required at intersections and areas where pedestrians are most likely to be.  Road traffic is required to give right of way to pedestrians at a pedestrian crossing, but I often find that this rule is ignored.  Curb ramps are specifically used for ease of access by both wheelchair users and the elderly, so allow sufficient space for the unimpeded use of the ramp.

Do you have an opinion or story to share? Write to me on awareness@wcapd.org.za or join us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/westerncape.apd