Muscat: "We are not taking effective action to check dangerous driving behaviour that puts our lives and the lives of the most vulnerable — children and pedestrians — at risk daily," says Bernadette Bhacker-Millard, an Omani lawyer and co-founder of 'Sustainability,' an Omani social entrepreneurship company active in the field of road safety.
Referring to the bus crash that killed three Pakistan School Muscat's students and left several others injured on January 22, Bernadette said, "Speeding, apparently a factor in the latest bus crash, remains the biggest killer on our roads and causes more than 70 per cent of all road fatalities. This is not surprising if we consider that Oman has some of the highest urban speed limits in the world and even then, many drivers routinely exceed them. As a society, we have a very high tolerance for speeding, possibly because it is a driving behaviour we all succumb to when pressed for time in our daily lives."
With over 10 years of experience in campaigning for protecting children in cars and ensuring safer roads for the country's youth, Bernadette is an authority on Oman's traffic accidents and has produced a number of international award-winning road safety films in Arabic under the umbrella of her educational campaign — 'Salim and Salimah, Safe and Sound'.
The road safety expert went on to explain, "We even hear calls from time to time for speed limits to be increased. This ignores the fact that speeding increases both the risk of a crash and the risk of serious injury or death when a crash occurs. Statistics show that speeding combined with low restraint is to be blamed for Oman's record fatalities over the past three years — between 30-35 per 100,000 of the population compared to only six per 100,000 in Europe. Tragically, children and young people accounted for more than one in five deaths and one in three injuries. The risk of a child dying on Oman's roads is around 32 times more than that of a child dying on the road in the UK and even higher if compared to countries such as Holland and Sweden."
Bernadette, however, clarified that when seeking to apportion blame for this latest tragedy, the society should be careful to acknowledge that most child fatalities and injuries occur to children travelling as passengers in cars driven by parents or other family members.
"This is because regardless of nationality or educational background, a significant percentage of drivers in Oman engage in high-risk driving habits such as speeding, tailgating, using a mobile phone, eating at the wheel and lane dodging with unrestrained children moving around inside the vehicle," she averred.
Calling for stricter laws for school student transportation, Bernadette said, "School bus transportation and drivers are not regulated by law in any significant way. Any Omani over the age of 18 years is eligible to drive a school bus or other utility vehicle (taxi etc.) provided he possesses a 'light' driving licence. There are no specific requirements or training than an applicant must satisfy in order to qualify as a bus driver.
She adds, "In practice, most schools sub-contract pupil transport to private companies who are required by the Ministry of Manpower to employ young Omanis as drivers. These drivers are by definition inexperienced and, as young males, they fall in the age bracket of drivers are most prone to risk-taking and therefore unsuited to the task of transporting pupils to and from school.
"On the other hand, many bus drivers are in the older age bracket and may have health conditions or could be on medication which impairs their vision or reflex in case of any hazard."
She stressed that there is clearly a need for a regulatory framework for training the school bus drivers and then testing them as per minimum eligibility requirements.
"In many countries, these include a minimum number of years of driving experience, clean licence, satisfactory medical and drug-testing as well as background checks," Bernadette pointed out.
She said there is also a need for more stringent regulation of vehicles used as school buses.
"At present, the only regulations are those applicable to light commercial vehicles. Seat belts, which more than halve the risk of death or serious injury to passengers in a crash, are not currently compulsory. School bus regulations elsewhere include minimum design specification for bus body strength, rollover and crash protection, speed governors (80km/h), compulsory fitting and use of seat belts, side stop arms and additional warning lights. Countries which have a national school bus fleet also require buses to be of a specific colour (for example the yellow school buses in neighbouring UAE)," she emphasised.