Children in Qatar endangered by reckless driving

Read the original article on Qatar Behind The Wheel, a website my classmates and I put together to promote safe driving in Qatar:

I highly recommend that you go through to watch the videos, see the pictures and graphics and read the articles. It’ll take 40 min max, but you’ll truly come out with something.

Walid Sakr and Marie-Antoinette Attiyeh just had a baby girl, Meera Sakr. As this life was given to them, another was taken away almost two years ago when their first daughter, Dana Sakr, was killed in a car accident.

On October 18, 2009, The Lebanese School in Qatar’s bells rang to mark the end of the day and Marie-Antoinette, a Lebanese psychologist, went to pick up her son, Chadi, 7, Dana, 4, and their neighbor’s daughter, 3. Chadi and his mother waved to a passing car, gesturing the driver to stop. The driver stopped, allowing them to cross the street. As Marie-Antoinette crossed the street with all three children and Dana on her side, holding on to her, Marie-Antoinette stopped to place the neighbor’s daughter on the sidewalk and asked Chadi to watch her for a minute. As she looked back at Dana, she found her lying on the street with blood flowing from her ears. “I knew right away that she passed away,” said Marie-Antoinette.

The driver lifted his leg off the brake and without accelerating, he slightly hit Dana’s face. The impact was strong enough for her head to slam onto the ground, Walid and Marie-Antoinette said. She died instantly. Neither the young man nor his family called or visited the deceased’s family during the funeral. According to Walid, the only time the family received a call from the young man was when he asked how he could avoid going to court.

When the ambulance arrived, Dana’s heartbeat couldn’t be heard. According to Marie-Antoinette, a young lady leaving the school distracted the driver who promised to stop. “Young boys come with their new luxurious cars to look at and exchange numbers with young female students,” said Marie-Antoinette. The police report said the cause was “Ignorance and lack of attention [and] driving with an expired training license.”

The age of the driver is in dispute, with Marie-Antoinette believing the young man was 17 and the police report stating he was 26. Local newspapers like Al Raya reported that the driver was 27. The young man was jailed for four days, paid QR 10,000 to Dana’s family, and had his expired training license taken away for three months.

Initially, the driver’s car insurance company claimed that Marie-Antoinette waited in the car while her daughter crossed the street. The insurance company was eventually ordered to pay QR 200,000 to Dana’s family.

Marie-Antoinette blames Qatar’s lenient laws for allowing the man who accidently killed her daughter to serve a four-day sentence. Mohamed Al Malki, an expert in the Office of the Minister State for Interior Affairs and General Secretary of the National Committee for Traffic Safety, said the young man’s punishment was “not a crime, it’s a traffic accident”

There should be tougher laws to punish traffic violators, said Marie-Antoinette. “We can’t raise a generation without laws. “If there are no laws, there’ll be more accidents. What’s the point of raising your children properly when the law doesn’t back you up?”

According to the Ministry of Interior’s Traffic Department, if a pedestrian is killed in a car accident, the driver must pay QR 200,000. If the car is insured, the insurance company foots the amount. In cases where the driver responsible for the fatal accident can’t pay the penalty, he goes to jail.

Al Malki said that everyone was at fault for Dana’s death. “The school is responsible, the mother is responsible and the driver is responsible,” he believes. “The school should look out for the children and the mother shouldn’t have left her daughter walking behind her. Although the driver wasn’t speeding, he should have slowed down.”

“Almost zero percent” of children die in car accidents in Qatar, most of whom were pedestrians, said Al Malki. But that doesn’t mean that the children getting hit by vehicles narrative is non-existent in Qatar. “Children of the age two and three get hit by cars at their homes or schools, especially when somebody is reversing.” Al Malki recalls an incident where an elderly man accidently killed his granddaughter while pulling out of the driveway.

Dealing with young men who speed and refuse to wear seat belts is challenging, said Al Malki. According to Al Malki, males, especially Qataris, between the ages of 16-28, die or get injured the most in local car accidents. However, “The problem now is families,” he said, because parents don’t encourage their children to wear seat belts and infants are not placed in car seats. To illustrate how families are fueling Qatar’s traffic woes, he spoke of a woman who was driving with her eight-member family on Mesaeed St. On the way to Sealine road, the woman got into a car accident that killed two, including a six-year-old boy who was in the backseat. Many fatalities and injuries caused in car accidents could be avoided if passengers, whether sitting on the front or backseat, wore seat belts, Al Malki reasoned.

Though laws on the books state that children must be fastened into car seats, lax enforcement is making it possible for parents to ignore them. Traffic laws that protect children will be enforced soon, Al Malki said. When questioned further about the laws’ details and when they will be enforced, he refrained from answering.

Dana’s death introduced new precautions to Qatari school districts. A security guard controls traffic in the area that The Lebanese School in Qatar, Qatar International School and Lycee Voltaire, Qatar’s French school are located. Several speed humps, street lines, signals and road divisions have been added to prevent traffic accidents.

Although Dana’s death led to several pedestrian oriented safety measures, Qatar is now more concerned with children’s safety in cars. It is common to see children sitting on their parent’s laps in front seats, especially on the driver’s lap. Some children are seen playing or standing in the back seats where a sudden brake could cause them to hit the car’s windshield. “They’re using them [children] as air bags,” said Lisa Harvey, a Scottish mother living in Qatar for two and a half years. When she drives, Harvey puts her child in a car seat and uses the “baby on board” sign, which she says people ignore by speeding close to her car.

Harvey’s friend, Linn Eriksen, a Norwegian mother living in Qatar for a year, witnessed an 11-year-old boy driving a car in her residential compound. “He was looking everywhere but on the road,” she said.

“I don’t understand why they [families] don’t keep them [children] safe because they’re so family-oriented,” added Therese Juncker, another concerned mother. “I’m concerned every time I drive.”

Harvey, Eriksen and Juncker believe that in the UK and Norway, there’s a higher level of awareness of children’s car safety than in Qatar. In the UK, for example, if a woman gives birth and is released from the hospital along with her baby, nurses will accompany her to the car to ensure she has a car seat. In addition, it’s common for salesmen to personally secure car seats into customers’ vehicles.

Although Harvey criticizes Qatar driving culture, she still acknowledges that Qatar is a developing country and the mindset here is different from the UK’s. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t have car seats [in the UK],” she said. Harvey believes people in Qatar don’t put their children in car seats in part because “they don’t have the money to afford car seats.”

Although many expatriates like Harvey argue that many Qataris don’t use car seats, employees at various children-orientated shops say otherwise. Car seats have increased in the last two years and locals are the most common buyers, said Wafaa Hayouk, Carrefour’s Child/Baby Manager at the City Center mall. “The community has become really aware,” said Hayouk. With prices varying from QR 150 to QR 500, Carrefour sells some of the cheapest car seats in Qatar.

Mamas and Papas, a prominent children’s store in Villagio mall, sells five to 15 car seats daily with prices ranging from QR 900 to QR 1600, said Zeina Rachid, the store’s assistant manager. Expatriates, who buy car seats for children up to the age of 11, are the most common customers, said Rachid.

Mamas and Papas joined Jaidah Automotive, Qatar’s sole importer of Chevrolet vehicles, and Al Khebra Driving School, one of the country’s leading driving schools, in a campaign to promote safe driving in Qatar, which also focuses on child safety. On an advertisement found at the Chevrolet showroom in Al Dafnah, a campaign advertisement shows a mother with her child on her lap. Next to that image is a picture of the same child secured in a car seat. “If you really want to hold on to them…let them go and strap them in,” said the advertisement’s slogan. A model of a Mamas and Papas car seat stands next to the advertisement.

According to Rachid, Mamas and Papas car seats, like Chevrolet’s cars, are crash tested to determine the occupant’s survivability. “You can see kids on the sunroof, sitting on their dad’s lap when the right location is to be on the child seat.” said Sami Skaff, the senior marketing executive of Jaidah Automotive. “If they’re in the middle, they’ll fly into the dashboard or hit the windshield.” In the coming months, Jaidah Automotive and its strategic partner, Al Khebra Driving School, are conducting a defensive driving course for the public. The course targets young drivers because they are the people most involved in car accidents.

The course also educates drivers about how to keep children safe in vehicles. People shouldn’t put their children in front seats because in doing so “you’re killing your baby in case an accident happens,” said Samson Mutahi, the defensive driving course supervisor at Al Khebra Driving School. “Later, you’ll cry because of ignorance.”

Mutahi said that the top three child safety rules are: always put your child in the backseat, fasten your child’s seat belt, and place babies in a car seat.

It’s not only the responsibility of Qatar’s traffic departments or companies such as Jaidah Automotive and Al Khebra Driving School, “It’s about who’s behind the wheel,” said Abdullah Jassem Al-Buainain, the assistant investigation officer at Abu Hamour Traffic Department. “If you use the car inappropriately, it’s a killing machine.” Marie-Antoinette knows this all too well.

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