I grew up as one of five children within a single-mother household. While I was born in Asmara, I was raised abroad. Most of my favorite memories from growing up are of playing football. My brothers and I would play football every single day – rain, snow, or shine.
We would often round up the neighborhood kids and organize small tournaments, which we referred to as “World Cup”. I fondly recall how we all would pretend that we were famous players and representing certain teams. Our tournaments, which could often get very heated and intense (neighborhood bragging rights were on the line, after all), would last for hours and would only end when the sun went down and it was too dark to see the ball or our parents would demand that we come home to complete our household chores, do our homework, eat dinner, or wash up and go to bed. Although we played in many different locations, the place where we most often could be found was at one of our local schools.
Occasionally, as we were playing, wayward shots, desperate clearances, or wild kicks out of frustration would lead to the ball ending up on the street. Usually, we took turns collecting the balls (at other times, those eliminated from the tournament in the early stages were assigned to do so). However, despite our many years of playing, I cannot recall an instance of any of us ever being in danger of being hit by a car driving on the road while we were retrieving the balls. In fact, I cannot recall any instance in which children in our area playing football or on the nearby playground were ever hit by a car. Although a number of different factors can account for this, some of the most important include the fact that the streets surrounding our schools were located within a school zone and also that we all were taught traffic and road safety guidelines at our schools.
A school zone basically is an area on a street near a school or near a crosswalk leading to a school that has a likely presence of younger pedestrians. In many countries around the world, school zones generally have a reduced speed limit (often approximately 20 to 40 km/h), which is applicable during certain hours (such as in the morning or afternoon) and on certain days (generally weekdays). School zones are often marked with special signs and pavement markings in order to alert drivers of the high concentration of children and to remind them to take special care when driving. I also remember how my school arranged special lessons about road and traffic safety (e.g. having to always stop at the curb or edge of the street and look both ways before crossing the street, never running into the street, making eye contact with drivers, etc.), in order to ensure student safety. Importantly, a considerable amount of research shows that school zones and road and traffic safety lesson programs for children can significantly reduce collisions, injuries, and fatalities.
I raise these points because of several recent observations I have made in some parts of Eritrea. Specifically, one can often see cars driving at relatively high speeds when they are near or within areas where schools and young children are located. Although school zones exist in the country, it seems that some drivers fail to comply. In fact, just several days prior to the publication of this edition of Eritrea Profile, I was witness to a near fatal accident. Specifically, a truck that was being driven at a high speed almost struck a group of children who were crossing the road to get to their school. The outcome could have been tragic. Moreover, in many parts of the country, it is quite common to see children running around or playing near or on relatively busy streets, often completely oblivious to the potential consequences of their actions.
These observations are troubling, since the need for drivers to abide by speed limits is particularly important in school zones given the high levels of child pedestrian activity and the consequences of a collision. When children are struck by vehicles, their injuries often result in life threatening or permanent damage. Furthermore, the faster a vehicle is moving, the greater the impact and the more devastating the results.
The “encouraging” thing is that the situation can be improved or addressed through a number of relatively simple and low-cost measures. For example, policymakers and local authorities should first investigate the factors contributing to the lack of driver compliance in these school zones. In addition, they could also assign (more) traffic authorities to monitor designated school zones. Their greater visible presence would likely cause drivers to slowdown and help reduce the likelihood of accidents. Additionally, the introduction of road markings, such as different colors or painted symbols on the road, could better indicate to drivers where school zones begin and end. As well, the possibility of introducing solarpowered pedestrian lights should be seriously considered. These could be triggered by students or other pedestrians wishing to cross roads near schools and alert drivers to slow down.
Another possible step that could be taken is to erect speed bumps or humps in school zone areas. Speed bumps or humps are simply vertical obstacles – literal bumps or humps in the road – that jolt the occupants of a vehicle that is moving too quickly over them, thus forcing drivers to reduce their speed. Positively, they are cost-effective; they provide years of high performance and require little maintenance. Furthermore, while other traffic control measures such as road markings or signs can lose efficacy over time, the reduction in speed and traffic volume from speed bumps and humps can remain long after local drivers become accustomed to their presence.
Last, elementary and kindergarten schools across Eritrea, particularly those located in urban areas, could develop brief lesson plans or programs about road and traffic safety for young children. This could be done in coordination with local traffic authorities, could involve activities like field trips, guest talks, school assemblies, and the distribution of specially developed books or pamphlets, and would significantly help to ensure that Eritrea’s young children are more aware about road and traffic safety, less likely to practice risky behaviors, and better able to protect themselves. Of course, while all of these potential measures are important, the role of drivers in contributing to road safety should not be overlooked. Simply, automobile drivers must do more to comply with traffic regulations and respect all school zone guidelines.
Ultimately, while Eritrea is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, its most valuable asset and most precious treasure are its children. The injury to or loss of even one child is too much. Thus, it is imperative that we do all that we can to protect our children and ensure their safety.