By Anand Holla
They say safety isn’t expensive, it’s priceless. That applies as much to road safety, and most so, when the ones who are being taught are kids.
A year after it was launched last December, the Students for Road Safety programme has successfully reinvigorated and continues to tackle the road safety issue — especially road deaths and injuries among 12 to 18 year olds — which is one of Qatar’s largest public health issues.
As part of the national road safety initiative One Second, and in line with Qatar’s National Road Safety Strategy which the Ministry of Interior (MoI) kick-started last year, Students for Road Safety raises the road safety awareness of students aged 12 to 18 and moulds them into conscientious road safety ambassadors at school and at home.
With up to 75 per cent of all road deaths in Qatar, every year, known to be of young men aged between 10 and 29, the programme, endorsed by MoI and sponsored by Maersk Oil Qatar, travels from school to school, focusing on educating and preparing the country’s future drivers to usher in a much safer road environment.
The charm perhaps lies in the programme’s innovative approach that blends interactive presentations with coaching by advanced driving instructors in a dynamic driving stimulator, specially designed to mimic Qatar’s roads and local driving behaviours. This year, more than 2000 students and young drivers have benefitted from the programme.
Community caught up with Raffat Zreik, Programme Manager for Students for Road Safety, to know what has gone into putting in place, what he calls “Qatar’s biggest and longest-lasting road safety campaign.”
What are the key objectives of the programme?
The main objective is to change behaviour. Our goal is to instil responsibility in Qatar’s youth to develop a positive road safety culture across Qatar’s schools. Road safety is a massive, complicated issue, that’s deeply rooted in our people. We believe it’s not very easy to change behaviour of adults. If you have been driving for 20 years and let’s say not very nicely, such an initiative won’t change much for you.
Is that why the programme targets students from the age of 12 to 18?
Yes. The idea is that younger students become road safety ambassadors at home and at school. For the older students, aged 16-18, who are just starting to drive, it makes a lot of sense for them to go through some road safety training before they take to the wheel. We focus on teaching actual driving skills to the older students, and road safety concepts to the younger ones.
How excited do the younger kids get about this programme?
We see that the younger ones sort of help their parents’ road behaviour, too. A 12-year-old who goes through the programme, hopefully, will ask his father to buckle up when he drives him to school. In fact, a 15-year-old boy who would diligently wear the seatbelt during the programme, ran up to an instructor and proudly revealed that he is the one who ensures that everybody, from his driver to his parents, wears seatbelt every time they step into the car.
Briefly take us through what happens at these sessions.
Instructors take the state-of-the-art mobile simulator in a trailer to a school, where we typically spend a week. The programme consists of interactive presentations on basic road safety concepts, such as not distracting your parents or getting distracted, safety distances between vehicles, speeding, talking on cell phones, and so on. Through the simulator sessions, which include one-to-one coaching inside the simulator, these points are reinforced.
What exactly is the simulator?
It’s a high-fidelity system that’s a lot similar to simulators used in aviation, or in Formula-I cars. The car we have used to build this simulator around is a Range Rover. So when you sit in this real cockpit of a real car, you will see a projected wraparound screen with a 200 degree field of view, around you. The visuals feel natural and so do the car’s pedals, dashboard and so on. You are immersed in a virtual environment which, here, is Doha. We had Doha’s streets, like the Corniche and its vicinity, recreated specifically for this programme so that students can drive through a natural, familiar environment.
Each student gets around 15 minutes in the simulator. How effective can such a short time be, and why?
Trust me, 15 minutes is enough to really make a difference. As the kids are sent to simulators in groups of five, they not only get to step into the simulator themselves but also get to see their friends in it. That way, the learning goes on for an hour. As for why this is effective, kids are taught to not talk on phones while driving, but that’s in theory. We ask a student in the simulator to drive, and then phone him and ask him to pick up and talk while driving. You would be surprised how many accidents kids have when they do that. They end up hitting the curb or hitting another car.
How else does the simulator help in recreating a real scenario?
Well, it has what engineers call an artificial intelligence engine. So the cars around the student, in this virtual environment, are intelligent. They duplicate the dangerous behaviours you see on road here; some of which are very common behaviours in Doha such as a car tailgating you, not using the indicator when turning, cutting other cars off at the roundabout, and flashing your lights to ask the car in front to move away. These patterns are built into the simulator so that the students can experience them.
How do you deal with the younger students differently than the older ones?
Most 17 or 18 years olds here have driven before as their parents may have let them drive a bit near their house or in the desert. So while they will typically know how to control a car, they aren’t used to the traffic. So we let them experience these conditions with the hope that they understand how difficult it actually is. For instance, we can make the cars inside the simulator less or more aggressive. So if a kid has driven before, then we introduce more chaos so as to help them realise how reality can be.
So it’s mostly about educating the young through an experience?
Yes, because the simulator reacts like a normal car in how it beeps if you don’t wear a seat belt, or exceed speed limits, and so on.
How does Students for Road Safety approach schools?
We work very closely with the Traffic Department. While our core programme involves visiting schools, we also do a lot of community outreach events, targeting the same age group of 12 to 18. It’s quite shocking and sad but if you go to any school in Qatar, it probably will have a student or a teacher who has had a major car accident before. So when we go to schools and say we have a free road safety programme for the children, they are elated.
Don’t you think traffic rules in Qatar are already mostly in place?
The Traffic Department has been working really hard on improving the country’s road safety record, and a lot has been achieved. However, to make it a big success, continuity is the key. During Ramadan, for instance, a lot of road safety campaigns are held. But we all must want it to continue. That’s because road safety is a continuous issue.
Do you feel the issue of road safety doesn’t garner the importance that it deserves?
Let me ask this; have we ever thought about how many people die on the roads every day? It’s actually worse than any other disaster or conflict you can think of. Approximately, 1.24 million people die on the world’s roads every year — and that’s a shocking 3,400 people a day — according to the World Health Organisation’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013. To put it in perspective, that’s about 10 planes a day. If two or three planes crashed in a year, you would think aviation is unsafe.
Lastly, what is the biggest lesson that the kids are taught in this programme?
That has to be the attitude. It’s the umbrella that everything else comes under. A lot of students can afford to drive a nice car but they just don’t understand the dangers. That’s why attitude is the key. We must make sure they care and understand what the issue is. We tell the students that it’s not the car that’s safe, but the driver. It doesn’t matter how big or small, safe or unsafe you believe your car is, because if you flip at 120kms per hour, chances are you won’t survive. It really is you that matters.
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