Traffic accidents and their tragic consequences continue battering Latin America relentlessly. Fundación MAPFRE runs initiatives in the road safety education sphere in 17 countries around the region, where 50 children die every day in traffic accidents. The goal: to lay the foundations for healthy, safe, sustainable mobility.

TEXTO DAVID LOSA IMAGES: ISTOCK

Responsible boys and girls will build a safer future. It seems obvious, but this axiom is not always taken seriously. One example is road safety education, a cornerstone in the fight against traffic accidents and their tragic consequences. Reality tells us that a lot remains to be done.

In Latin America, where Fundación MAPFRE runs an educational program to further road safety in 17 countries, the statistics still reveal far too much irresponsible behavior. Such conduct is often the underlying cause of 50 children dying every day on this region’s roads. A global drama which, in this part of the planet, takes on a particularly tragic dimension: the mortality rate due to traffic accidents for those aged five to 14 is almost double the world average (according to data for 2017 from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation). If we extend this age group, accidents on our roads are clearly the leading cause of mortality among people between the ages of five and 29 (WHO). All this in a region with a very young population, where the average age is less than 30 in most of the countries.

It is not just a question of age

There are other revealing dimensions. Most of the children and youngsters who suffer traffic incidents also form part of the most vulnerable group of road users: pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. There is also a need to underscore a third factor which strongly influences road safety in Latin America: poverty. The poorer the country or region, the greater the infant mortality rate on its streets and highways.

The economic context has a direct bearing, for example, on the condition of the road infrastructure, markings and signs, as well as the degree of traffic planning, or the age and quality of vehicles on the roads (active and passive safety systems are minimal or non-existent on most vehicles there). Even so, none of the above causes is as critical as the “human factor”, present in 90 percent of all accidents. The good news is that this is precisely where road safety education can work best.

70 percent of the children who have participated in some road safety education activity always wear a safety belt.

But, what exactly is the human factor? According to the Spanish General Traffic Directorate (DGT), there are three types of human errors: those prior to the accident (execution of a maneuver, identification of a sign, failure to see other vehicles…); the “various direct agents” (tiredness, stress, drugs, alcohol, cell phone…); and the “prudence inhibitors” (speed, overestimation of capabilities…). To all this, we must add other irresponsible attitudes stemming from ignorance or belittling the importance of rules, such as a failure to use seat belts or child restraint systems, exceeding the vehicle seating capacity, etc.

Reversible behavior

To get a closer idea of the geographic context, and according to data provided by the national public institutions and compiled by OISEVI (Ibero-American Road Safety Observatory), the use of seat belts in the front seats nowadays is less than 40 percent in countries like Mexico or Ecuador. In the latter, the use of safety belts in the rear seats is around three percent. The situation is quite similar with child restraint systems; in most countries, usage does not exceed 30 percent, with extreme cases such as that of Paraguay, where only one percent use children’s car seats.

A recent study by Fundación MAPFRE in several Latin American countries about behavior and road safety education reveals that 70 percent of children who have participated in some road safety education activity always use their safety belt. More than half of those who never wear a seat belt have not received any kind of information regarding these questions. This clearly shows that road safety education leads to more responsible behavior.

If road safety education is the light, darkness is often determined by the national legislation and the lack of interest in the matter demonstrated by the various governments. A Fundación MAPFRE report, conducted in collaboration with the FICVI (Ibero-American Federation of Victims of Traffic Violence), on the regulatory frameworks for road safety education in 14 Latin American countries (Spain was also included), warns that only Ecuador, with its Organic Law on Intercultural Education, envisages a specified number of hours (four per week in the first year of high school) and a formal assessment of what has been learned. As for the other countries, most of them deal with road safety education within other kinds of legislation (especially in their national traffic regulations), although these mentions generally do not entail any concrete provisions or stipulations.

Driving in the dark

A Fundación MAPFRE survey of 11,000 elementary and secondary education pupils in 12 countries in the region revealed the consequence of this lack of governmental engagement: over 40 percent declared they had never heard of “road safety education”. The figure exceeds 50 percent in Honduras, Colombia and Puerto Rico. This contrasts with the interest of the little ones: among those children who had indeed heard of road safety education, 64 percent showed positive feelings of interest, enthusiasm or surprise, a figure that increases once they have participated in this type of educational activities.

After more than two decades’ experience working in the field of road safety education in a total of 23 countries (Latin America or Spain, of course, but also in the United States, Turkey, Portugal, Germany, the Philippines or Malta), and after having done so for nearly three million children and over 100,000 teachers, Fundación MAPFRE remains firmly committed to a global educational program focused on three fronts: teacher training; classroom activities in schools and other places; and the adaptation of learning materials to the reality of the different countries. And targeting three spheres of activity: school, neighborhood and family. Always with innovation as the main driving force behind its activities.

Innovate for more effective education

One example is the creation of numerous children’s traffic parks in several countries (Colombia, Panama…), since the very first one was opened in Spain in 1997. This is an accessible, fun way to learn about road safety outside the classroom, focusing on the mobility of pedestrians and cyclists. In this regard, worthy of note is one of Fundación MAPFRE’s flagship projects in this field in recent years: the Road Safety Education Caravan, an initiative that proved so successful from the outset in Spain and Portugal that it soon crossed the pond to Brazil, Puerto Rico or Mexico. This experience consists of a theoretical session with audiovisual materials and basic driving tips, with another practical part driving electric karts under the supervision of specialist monitors. All this on a large track set up for the occasion with streets, signs and traffic lights, where the pupils have fun while learning to circulate safely and, above all, have responsible attitudes toward whatever their role on the road might be.

Innovation has also boosted the development of virtual activities and games, with the 50,000 participants to date showing the effectiveness of gamifying such a vital subject. The idea is to use ICT as a road safety education tool (inside or outside the classroom) by creating materials adapted to suit each age group and geographical environment (games, apps, activities, stories…). Learning to cross the street safely, or wear a helmet when riding a bike, while you play can prove much more effective than a simple talk. The program has even gone much further, technologically speaking, with the development of materials incorporating augmented reality, or with the adaptation of teaching materials so that they can be used by children with hearing difficulties, in collaboration with the CNSE (Spanish State Deaf People Confederation). And just around the corner is virtual reality, another technology with infinite possibilities that Fundación MAPFRE will be incorporating into this educational program in all the countries where it operates.

Walking to school

According to a Fundación MAPFRE survey of 11,000 Latin American children in elementary and secondary education, most of them — 37.6 percent — walk to school every day. In other questions in the same survey, half of those consulted do not respond correctly when asked how to cross the street; 60 percent of those who go on foot must walk on the road during some stretch of the journey; and just over half of all the pupils say they have been afraid of being knocked down on their way to school, pointing to reckless driving as their chief concern.

In Spain, Fundación MAPFRE participates in the initiative “We now walk to school”, launched by Stop Accidentes and A.N.C.A.S (Association for Children Walking in a Safe Sustainable Environment). The project is ongoing at this time and, thanks to the support of Fundación MAPFRE, is being run in six autonomous communities. It consists of workshops for children in grades three to six, in which they are taught how to be safe, responsible pedestrians, promoting values such as tolerance, respect and coexistence. In addition, all the children who take part in the workshops can participate in a drawing contest with the chance to win a trip for the whole class, and a range of educational and sports material.

A common front

Recognizing that its work does not aim to replace the role of governments, Fundación MAPFRE has sought support in all the countries where it carries out its educational work through partnerships, generally with victims’ associations. They can therefore relate their experiences to pupils, thus raising awareness of the consequences of inappropriate traffic-related behavior.

For example, in Spain, Fundación MAPFRE runs initiatives together with Stop Accidentes or Aesleme. In Latin America too, it has struck up a large number of collaborative partnerships, with the common goal of reducing the number of traffic victims. The following are just a few of them: Conduciendo a conciencia y Compromiso Vial (Argentina); Vida Urgente (Brazil); Emilia Silva Figueroa Foundation (Chile); Youth for Road Safety (international); Cavat- Nicole Paredes Foundation (Ecuador); Apasit (Guatemala); Víctimas de la Violencia Vial AC. (Mexico); Gonzalo Rodríguez Foundation (Uruguay); Asotransito (Venezuela); Mónica Licona Foundation (Panama).