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Getting Taken for a Ride

Trip ReportJames HipkissComment

I'm always amazed when I run safety workshops and ask how many of the audience wear a seat belt when getting into a vehicle in their home country. Without fail everyone raises their hand and some even look at me as if I have just asked a rather stupid question. However, when I ask the same group how many of them wear a seat belt when they travel abroad, fewer than half raise a hand and when I ask how many refuse to travel in a vehicle that isn't equipped with seat belts I'm often on my own.

So why is it that when we travel we no longer feel the need to protect and preserve our own safety? This, despite the fact that in many cases the countries we are travelling to have lower standards of road safety and higher rates of road fatalities than our home countries. Perhaps its the perception that because we are abroad and we often associate this with a positive experience that we lower our guard. Or maybe we view poorer safety standards as being part of the romance of travel.

A when in Rome mindset perhaps. If you think this is just another safety expert having a moan, don't take my word for it, have a look at the stats from the World Health Organisation; Road traffic crashes kill 1.2 million people a year or an average of 3242 people every day. Road traffic crashes injure or disable between 20 million and 50 million people a year. Road traffic crashes account for 2.1% of all deaths globally. The majority of deaths from road traffic crashes (90%) occur in low and middle-income countries. Many of these are the same countries that, we as western tourists and business people, travel to. One of the issues we have is that despite greater awareness about vehicle safety the problem is actually getting worse rather than better.

According to the Burden of Global Disease the outlook is not good and the situation is only going to get worse. In 2004 road traffic crashes were responsible for 1,274,845 deaths globally, making it 9th in the list of causes of death. By 2030 it is predicted that it will rise to 5th and overtake diseases such as cancer, diabetes, hypertensive heart disease and HIV/AIDS. So, whats the solution? In many respects this lies with us. If, as travellers, we continue to accept poor quality ill-equipped vehicles driven by unqualified drivers, who exceed, or ignore speed limits then we are asking for trouble. If, on the other hand, we insist that tour operators and ground agents provide good quality, well maintained vehicles with fitted seat belts and qualified drivers who are adequately rested and not under the influence of drink or drugs, then we are taking steps to decrease the risk.

You wouldn't get into a cab or bus at home if it had bald tyres, no seat belts and the driver smelt of alcohol, so why do it when we are abroad? The problem is that it takes courage to turn away an unsuitable vehicle or driver, because we are concerned about insulting people or being disrespectful. These would seem like pretty feeble reasons if you find yourself in a foreign hospital or worse. On more than one occasion as an expedition leader I have refused vehicles or drivers on safety grounds, and yes, it has at times made me very unpopular. However, I would rather deal with unpopularity than the aftermath of a vehicle crash. As a former police officer I have seen the results of vehicle crashes and trust me, its not a good look. The more people who take a stand and refuse to put their lives in danger by using poor quality drivers and vehicles the sooner the message will start to filter through. Especially when it starts to affect peoples livelihoods. I have seen this in other aspects of expedition safety, where rogue operators go out of business once they are unable to meet the safety requirements and expectations of the paying customer. Its also about education and many people in developing countries simply haven't had the benefit of the training in road safety that we take for granted.

Be under no illusion, seat belts save lives. Fact! However, it some countries this seems to be systematically ignored. A study in Kenya showed that 99% of those injured in vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts, despite it being law for drivers and front seat passengers to do so. Its not just a case of those in the front seats wearing seat belts either. When travelling in buses it only takes one person not wearing a seat belt to become a human missile. Consider this. A person travelling in a car moving at 30 miles per hour is also travelling at the same speed. If the vehicle suddenly stops (as happens in a crash) the person will still be moving inside the car at the same speed and will continue to do so until something (the steering wheel, dashboard, windshield......... another passenger) stops them. They would hit these objects in the same manner as he/she would hit the pavement falling from a 3-storey building. Being hit by a fellow passenger who weighs say 170 pounds and travelling inside a vehicle going at 60 miles per hour at the time of impact is not ever going to have a positive outcome.

Therefore, everyone travelling in multi-person vehicles has a responsibility to themselves and their fellow passengers to wear a seat belt, but its only through awareness that this message is going to get through. I have worked for a number of organisations who train their drivers not to turn the ignition key until everyone is wearing a seat belt. It is a very simple technique and it doesn't take long for the message to sink in. Its not just cars and buses that we need to be thinking about. Many travellers think nothing of renting a motorcycle or moped when abroad. Yet these machines are responsible for a disproportionate number of tourist deaths every year. According to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 38 people a day die in motorcycle crashes in Thailand alone. That's nearly 14,000 people a year using only one mode of transport in just one country.

There are times in life where we don't have choices, but when it comes to transport and travel we often do and these choices could quite literally make the difference between life and death. Yes, tour operators and employers have a moral responsibility for our safety, but they are often governed by the bottom line. Ultimately, it is up to us as individuals to ensure they comply to the highest levels of safety and if they don't shouldn't travel with them. At the very least you owe it to yourself to speak up and demand safe transportation.

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