One child, one more reason for safer roads in 2015

Main Image
The main gate to Phal’s school opens onto a busy road
The main gate to Phal’s school opens onto a busy road
Outside the school, the road where Phal was injured
Outside the school, the road where Phal was injured
Across the world, children face dangers on the journey to school
Across the world, children face dangers on the journey to school
In 2015, we have the chance to secure an SDG target for road safety
In 2015, we have the chance to secure an SDG target for road safety
Joining Zoleka Mandela and UNICEF’s Nicholas Alipui to urge action in 2015
Joining Zoleka Mandela and UNICEF’s Nicholas Alipui to urge action in 2015

In 2015 the world must make action on road safety a new health and development priority. Meet one of the many reasons why.

This is Phal. He’s a Cambodian boy, 9 years old. When he was 5 he was walking home from school when he was hit by a car. He suffered some brain damage and lost the use of his legs. We’ve been following Phal’s story and progress for a few years, and you may have read about him in our Make Roads Safe reports.

I visited him again in December, to see how he and his family are getting on. Together with our film-maker, Richard Stanley, our documentary camera crew, and our local guide from the Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, we drove along busy, pot-holed, roads through the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to the very edge of the city, where Phal lives. When we arrived at his home he was leaning on rudimentary wooden parallel bars by the shaded porch, playing with his friends. They were running around, jumping from the decking, clambering over plastic water butts, chasing the ducks and chickens which rustle around beneath the stilts house. Phal was watching, laughing. Then we arrived and disturbed their peaceful Sunday afternoon.

The good news is that Phal is doing ok. He’s a sweet little boy, good looking, with big soulful eyes. He’s attending school, and his parents have moved to a new home a few yards from a back-entrance gate to the school compound. It makes it easier for his mother, Sok Chin Da, to push Phal to class in his wheelchair in the morning and to pick him up in the evening. His classroom is on the first floor, so she has to carry him up the stairs: he’s getting big. He wants to be an entrepreneur when he grows up. You sense that, despite the obstacles that lie in his way, he might just do it. His mother was a worker in a garment factory until his accident. When news came that her son was hurt she had to ask for permission to leave the factory. The permission took some time to come. She didn’t have enough money to pay for decent and immediate medical attention. Phal’s family is poor: because he needs full-time care his mother has given up work and his father’s is now the only income. They live in a one room wooden home perched above a pond. But they seem rich in other ways, certainly in love and attention; in good neighbours and friends. They will need all this support for the challenges that lie ahead.

Later, we went a hundred metres up to the road to where Phal’s life-changing collision occurred. The main gate to his school is on a busy road. Construction trucks and oil tankers thunder past. Motorcyclists weave round potholes in the dust. There are no sidewalks, no crossings. The edge of the road blends with foliage stirred by the vibration of passing lorries. This is where schoolchildren – as young as five – are expected to walk.

We expect small children to negotiate this type of environment every day to get to their education, and yet they are often offered no protection on their way to and from school and the adult world apparently seems to care little whether or not they survive the journey. Millions of children, every day, have to leave home and walk alongside and across roads in conditions similar to, or worse than, this. We know that every day 500 children don’t survive the experience. We know that every day at least the same number are disabled, like Phal. Thousands more are injured. And how many children must wake up every morning and fear the ordeal that lies ahead of them? How many must fear the potential, and real, daily high-speed violence visited upon them by adults? Little wonder then that road crashes are now a leading cause of death for young people worldwide.

This daily reality is denied or excused by so many people who could help: by the people who built the school and didn’t think about how the children would arrive; by the people who financed and built the road but didn’t include any provision for people to walk along it; by the people who drive the trucks and cars that speed along this road with no concern for anyone else sharing the space; by the authorities who haven’t bothered to put in speed limits or signs denoting a school; by the companies who own the factories and construction sites and trucks and think only about profit and time saved and not at all about the people who have to live and work alongside the roads; by those, like me and you, who purchase the products made in these factories without really thinking about the blood that is spilt and the mothers who are kept from their injured children in order to keep productivity up and costs down. By the people in international agencies who could and should be doing so much more to help.

Standing at the side of that road I felt angry. And of course we should be angry that road safety for children is so neglected. But we should channel this into something positive, into a firm resolve for change. And in this pivotal year of 2015 we have the chance to make major advances.

In September the world’s leaders will meet at the United Nations in New York to finalise new ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ for the years to 2030. Thanks to two and a half years of campaigning by a coalition including the FIA Foundation and many others, the draft of these SDGs now includes a target for reducing global road traffic deaths. The next few months, as governments negotiate, will be critical to ensuring that road safety is recognised as a new priority for global health and development. We must all work hard to ensure a strong outcome. Two months after the SDG summit, Brazil will host a Ministerial Conference to review the mid-term of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety. This conference should be a launch pad for renewed international effort to achieve the objectives of the Decade and to establish frameworks of accountability and partnership to deliver an SDG target. And there are some exciting alliances and achievements to build on.

One example: Two days after meeting Phal, a few miles and a world away, I listened to Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Sar Kheng, speak at a ceremony at which 1,600 schoolchildren had been given motorcycle helmets by the US Government’s development agency, USAID. The Deputy Prime Minister was discussing the new Traffic Safety Law just approved by the Cambodian National Assembly. This new legislation is the result of many years of concerted effort by Cambodians who care about improving safety for their fellow citizens, supported by an international coalition of NGOs like AIP Foundation, the Global Road Safety Partnership, Handicap International and the Red Cross, international agencies including the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control & Injury Prevention, and donors including Bloomberg Philanthropies (which has made very significant investments) and the FIA Foundation. Once it is enacted and implemented, this year, the legislation should help to protect thousands of people from road traffic injury. It is a model of national advocacy and international cooperation which could be replicated in many other countries facing a similar scale of road traffic injury. It is an approach that can help to build sidewalks and cycle-ways; to reduce speed limits; to enforce drink driving; to provide seat belts in safe school buses. Across the world, we can protect children – if we have the will.

Later that same week in December, in Washington D.C., the FIA Foundation announced a new strategic partnership with UNICEF to protect the world’s children from road danger. Our alliance was unveiled at a major child safety summit organised by Safe Kids Worldwide which also saw the US launch of the global #SaveKidsLives campaign (www.savekidslives2015.org) . More than a hundred organisations were represented at the event, a powerful coalition for change. Speaking at the conference the US Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, pledged the support of the Obama Administration for including road safety in the new Sustainable Development Goals and signed up to the #SaveKidsLives campaign’s Child Declaration for Road Safety. During the course of this year we will see many more political leaders, public figures and hundreds of thousands of people across the world signing up for the principle that children should have the right and expectation to be safe on our roads. There is now a real sense that momentum is building and that 2015 can be a breakthrough year for safer roads.

And throughout this vital year, in amongst the campaign events, the summits and the negotiations on post-2015 communique sub-clauses, we have to keep the focus on what and who really matters. Because this is really all about one small child, dressed in a school uniform of white shirt and blue trousers, walking home from school with his whole life, his dreams, and the dreams of his family, ahead of him. An interrupted journey, a story that is tragically repeated hundreds of times every day.

For Phal, and the thousands of children like him, we have to deliver on the promise that 2015 holds.