MY SEAT BELT EXPERIENCE IN ENUGU

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I arrived Enugu in January 2020.April 28, 2020 marks my third month in the coal city. The serenity of Enugu reminds me of Abuja, in the Federal Capital Territory. It also reminds me of Jos, the Plateau State Capital. Among the States in the South East, Enugu is my ideal State capital that I would love to live. Right now I am drawn between Enugu and Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital because of the ongoing transformation under the able leadership of Governor Dave Umahi. However, unlike Abuja, in the Federal Capital Territory where seat belt usage is quite encouraging even among commercial drivers, the Enugu situation always leaves me in shock whenever I hit the road on my way to work.

Since I arrived on 28, January 2020, I have consciously and deliberately turned myself into a research assistant, utilizing observation-a qualitative research tool as my strong point. I do not know if my observation is proof enough for my readers or for anyone with reservations on my submission. I do not also know if because of my job, I have a personal bias which beclouds my judgement. Whatever the truism in my modest assertion, I wish to seek your forgiveness if I truly fall short of the best instrument to guide my assertion. But if I must sum up like I did in my piece titled, ’IS THERE RIGHT OF WAY IN ENUGU’, driving in Enugu is a nightmare.

I acknowledge the State Government effort on infrastructure but see how I captured driving in Enugu especially at roundabouts which was my focus. In that piece I tried to capture the driving habits especially at roundabouts. This is just a snippet of what I wrote,’’ My interest in Enugu is with respect to the right of way at roundabouts or the rule of giving way to traffic on your left which is my main focus. I also observed seat belt compliance especially with respect to the use of child restraint. I may not have driven round all the major roads in Enugu, but driving through Independence Layout, Abakaliki road through to Shoprite or through the Old or new market, amazes me. At the roundabout, the bad driving experience has no respect for the state of the cars or vehicles as both commercial vehicles, water tankers which is common sight in Enugu, private cars of all sorts and tricycles all struggle to outdo each other at the roundabout. Sometimes, gridlocks at roundabouts especially during rush hours are basically caused by impatience, arrogance and deliberate refusal to yield way at the roundabout as provided by Highway Code and the traffic regulations’’.

Just like I did with roundabout, I have chosen to dwell on seat belt usage. I know I have written severally on seat belt and child restraint. My focus is on commercial bus drivers and front seat passengers. I deliberately ignored observing private cars although I can sum up on good authority that compliance by private vehicles is encouraging unlike commercial vehicles. I also did not focus on the use of child restraints which I hope will be my focus soon. Specifically, Enugu has a preponderance of hijet and susuki buses used for passenger travel within the State. The buses like all other modern buses are installed with seat belt for the front seat passengers. I do not know if the back seat does have but I know there are for the driver and front seat passengers. My findings reveal that out of every ten commercial buses, rarely will you see two buses where the driver and front seat passengers comply with seat belt usage. My findings span morning and evening rush hours between 3 February 2020 to 30 April,2020. I did not focus on rear seat passenger because enforcement on rear seat is not as strict as front seat in commercial vehicles.

I did not border to enquire why the refusal but I know that non- use of seat belt or buckling up during any kind of journey; short or long distance is based on the unfounded perception by some motorists that seat belt is only of value on long distance journey and not necessary if driving within short distance within the city of even within your community or estate as we have in abundance in our clime. Because of this perception, I have used real examples whenever I write. Of all the cases that I have cited on this column, the one that is touchy and ever fresh in my mind is the story of the man who lost his ten-year-old child along the Abuja- Lokoja road in December, 2015.I have chosen to do same today hoping that it will change seat belt usage not just among these category of road users but even among others.

The story is touchy and pathetic and is ever fresh in my mind although all cases remain fresh and touchy too. The difference is that I had a first-hand encounter with the victim in this case involving a man whose tragedy I captured in a piece I titled, HOW I KILLED MY DAUGHTER. An excerpt reads thus,’’ sir, I killed my own daughter, my Jewel. It was my entire fault. She could have been alive today if I had insisted that she buckles up at the rear just like her mother and I did in the front seat. His self-confession hit me real deep beneath my cord. I barely managed to hold tears rolling down my cheek for fear that I might further break him down. I don’t have a daughter but I do have sons whom, like every parent I love dearly with my whole life. I know the pain of losing a loved one; the kind of pain I felt when I lost my parents and brother; I therefore can imagine the pain of losing your cherished daughter through your own fault.

I listened captivated as he went on explaining how they set out on a journey to Ekiti from where they were billed to travel to Lagos for a United Kingdom Visa. But every dream was cut short along this busy corridor where as they were driving at a speed he couldn’t tell, there was a tyre burst and the car somersaulted severally and threw his pearl off. When the car finally came to a stop, he told me, he came out and rushed to his daughter; Pamela who had sustained severe head injuries and died immediately.

Although, he continued his journey after, but it was without his ten-year-old daughter who from our few minutes’ discussion, he cherished and loved dearly. The second leg of the journey was done with him seated as a passenger as he was too heartbroken to drive. As they set out in a vehicle driven by his friend’s driver, all my thoughts were on the trauma and pain and regrets he will go through for years. How does a father forgive himself for causing the death of his lovely daughter? It will take only God to heal his wounds and make him live again for his other children if there are others and other members of his family.

But as I ponder on this tragedy, the question I keep asking is why do parents toy with the safety and life of their wards? Why do parents drive above the speed limit when they have precious family members with them? I say so because I know that Pamela could have been alive maybe with some bruises or fractures if only the speed at which the vehicle was going was common sense speed based on the high traffic volume, and the fact that every family member was in that vehicle? I pray that other parents who read though this piece will pause and ponder on how safety conscious they truly are especially when driving with their family in the vehicle. They should equally ask themselves why they play lip service to the use of seat belt by both front and rear seat passenger including the use of child restraints for children below twelve years.

Some years ago, a very senior colleague of mine told me a pathetic story of a friend of his who died as a result of a brief error in judgement towards the seat-belt use. According to his story, his friend had gone out with a girlfriend on a certain Friday night. After some drinks, it was time to leave, and the friend obviously thought, and probably spoke it out loud, ‘well, it’s a Friday night, no pestering law enforcement agent on the road to jaw-jaw on seat-belt.’ Note that this man had hitherto been known to be highly compliant to the practice of belting up. But, unfortunately, this particular Friday took a different turn. Even when his girlfriend advised him to use his belt, the man refused. And so, tipsy, (outright drunk?) he engaged gear and drove off. But the girlfriend, smart girl, decided to use her own seat belt. And that’s probably why she’s still alive. Because on approaching the big round-about by the Area 1 Junction in the FCT, the man had a crash and died. The girlfriend was alive to tell the story of what had transpired.

Tie this to another story involving a colleague’s brother-in-law, who is a military Officer. He had just rounded up from a late night assignment, and, obviously fatigued and sleepy, was driving home without using his seatbelt. On his way, somewhere in Lagos, he lost control, ran into a pavement, bounced back to hit a stationary vehicle, which acted as a wedge to finally stop him. But not before the force had snapped his head forward to crash into the windscreen, with his chest hitting the steering. Fortunately, he is still alive to tell the story by himself.

There are so many others, people we know, some of them dead, some of them alive to tell the story by themselves, some with life scaring injuries, some of them drivers, some of them passengers. The deaths, or severity of injuries, could have been avoided if only they had worn their seatbelts. Seat belts save lives. It can’t be put simpler than that. Seatbelts have been adjudged to be the most effective traffic safety device for the prevention of death and injury in the event of a crash. Wearing a seat belt can reduce risk of crash injuries by fifty percent, according to the Global National Safety Council.

In Nigeria, when the issue of seatbelt is raised, our minds immediately run to front seat occupants. It is a general consensus that seatbelts are basically for those in front. Come to think of it, it has been a widely-held belief that seatbelt use is just a necessary nuisance to avoid the greater nuisance of been stopped by an over-zealous Road Safety Official. But that is a far cry from the truth.

A seatbelt is designed to protect the occupants of a vehicle against any dangerous movement in the event of a crash or sudden stop. A seatbelt reduces the severity or even the possibility of an injury in a crash by preventing the occupants from colliding with interior elements of the vehicle or other passengers. It keeps occupants positioned correctly for maximum safety, and prevents them from being ejected from the vehicle.

Statistics from traffic management agencies and groups in developed countries reveal percentage of severity of injuries of deaths resulting from non-use of seatbelts in the event of a crash or a sudden stop. In the United Kingdom, out of the 1,432 car occupants killed in 2007, 34% had not belted up. An estimated 565 people were not using seatbelt when killed in 2005. 370 would have probably survived if they had been properly restrained. In Canada, the ‘insignificant’ 7% of people not wearing seatbelts account for almost 40% of fatalities in crashes. In the US, seatbelts saved almost 13,000 lives in 2009. Nigeria may not have the sophisticated data bank on this as at today, as the afore-mentioned countries, but fact remains that deaths and permanent injuries are occurring due to non-use of seat belts.

On January, 1st, 2003, the Federal Road Safety Corps launched a decisive enforcement on the use of the seat belt nationwide. One could say without fear of contradiction that the launch was extremely successful, with about 90% compliance level recorded all over the country. However, the focus as at then was on front seat occupants. Ten years down the line, the need arises to take another long look at the issue of seat belt usage in the country.

Evolving times come with evolving technologies, which in turn come with associated complications and risk factors, which in their own turn require commensurate strategies to combat. As technology improves on vehicles and roads, traffic management strategies must also be employed to examine ways to minimise crash causative factors inherent in these. Thus, the advantages of seatbelt use for ALL occupants of the vehicle cannot be over-emphasized.

The following is a piece I culled from a safety article from the Oklahoma State University, and I’d like to present it just as it was written: Imagine running as fast as you can – into a wall. You’d expect to get pretty banged up. Do you think you could stop yourself if the wall suddenly loomed up when you were two feet away from it? This is exactly the situation you face when the front of your car hits something at only 15 miles an hour. The car stops in the first tenth of a second, but you keep on at the same rate you were going in the car until something stops you – the steering wheel, dashboard or windshield – if you’re not wearing your safety belt… Bad enough at 15 miles an hour, but at 30 miles you hit “the wall” four times as hard as you would at 15. Or to put it another way, with the same impact you’d feel as if you fell three stories.

A properly worn safety belt keeps that second collision – the human collision – from happening. Quite revealing and frightening, you might say. Now, the reasons I hear people give for not using seatbelt is also quite revealing and interesting. They go like this: “I can’t have a crash, I’m a good driver”. But a bad driver could crash into you. Or you could have a sudden stop. “They’re so uncomfortable”. Wouldn’t you rather be uncomfortable than be endangered? “The belt will trap me”. Little chance of that happening. And the best place to be during a crash is in your car. If you’re thrown out of a car, you’re 25 times more likely to die. And if you need to get out in a hurry, in the event of fire or other danger, you stand a better chance of doing that when you’re conscious and not knocked out inside the car.