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Safety strategies
  1. David Bass
  1. Department of Paediatric Surgery, Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa (e-mail: DAVEB{at}

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    Editor,—Jan Shield is to be commended for rallying the troops in favour of “active” safety strategies,1 and most of her arguments in favour of education and enforcement would undoubtedly be valid in a developed country. However I would like to offer two contrasting viewpoints on the subject which are based primarily on personal observations related to the challenges of traffic safety confronting us in a cash strapped, developing country.

    Firstly, in support of passive measures is the increasing strain placed on the human and financial resources essential to conceive and sustain education programmes and law enforcement, particularly in developing countries. As such, traffic calming measures are likely to be more effective than nothing—simply because there is no other affordable solution to undisciplined traffic flow on a particular thoroughfare. Twelve months ago, the community in which which I live opted for a system of restricted entry through the suburb to reduce to number of “rat runners” speeding along a particular route during the early morning. At the time the system was put in place, law enforcement of the system was sufficiently regular to be taken for granted, and to ensure an 86% reduction in traffic flow. Then, three months ago, the traffic department underwent severe rationalisation, and overtime for all officers was abolished. Now there is no enforcement of the restricted entry system and the “rat runners” are back in force. In retrospect, a passive measure such as closure of the main access road would obviously have been the better choice. In South Africa, where formal education is limping along on a shoestring budget, and law enforcement (for a multitude of reasons) is virtually non-existent in some areas, the option of passive safety measures must be placed high on any agenda—certainly where traffic safety is concerned.

    Against what I have argued above is a word of caution. Just as active measures may fail, so may the too hasty adoption and construction of a passive device which is inappropriate for the identified purpose. Possibly because environmental modification may be the quickest and cheapest solution to an injury hazard—a form of instant gratification—the device too hastily chosen may fail dismally to counter that hazard simply because of a lack of adequate research into the hazard itself, or failure to consult expert opinion before firing up the cement mixer. Again, in South Africa, I notice a growing trend for traffic calming measures to be demanded by community groups, often in response to a spate of casualties in a residential area, or because a particular intersection has been identified as a “black spot”. Lay people may go one step further and put pressure on a municipality to construct a specific kind of device, speed humps being particularly popular, although by no means a panacea where the hazard may be compounded by a complexity of factors of which vehicle speed is only one. Also, piecemeal engineering may simply divert a hazard elsewhere so that it becomes the problem of a neighbouring suburb instead.

    The most effective passive strategies may simply require forward planning rather than hoping vainly that a “finger in the dyke” approach will plug the gaps later on. Resorting to an ad hoc solution reflects that town planners eschewed safety considerations from the outset and the attitude that condones such blinkered thinking must be discouraged.

    There is currently a backlog of over two million subsidised houses in South Africa. These can be constructed either according to an inexpensive generic plan which creates lots of accommodation, and many attendant hazards, or by careful planning that can ensure that safety features are built into the scheme as a whole, for example sufficient recreational space and play areas, shorter streets, restricted access for through traffic, etc. In that effective, enduring passive safety measures do indeed require foresight, research, and careful consideration, these should not be either resorted to, or denigrated as a “cop out”, or even worse, as a quick fix.