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Death Speeding Down El Salvador’s Roads

SAN SALVADOR, Feb 6 2013 (IPS) - The combination of widespread disregard for traffic regulations and poor vehicle and road controls puts El Salvador among the countries of Latin America with the highest rates of traffic-related deaths.

A Dec. 5 accident in which six people died when the car they were travelling in crashed near Santiago de María, 115 kilometres east of San Salvador, is just one of the many tragic accidents featured daily in the news.

“Traffic accidents are one of our leading emergencies; there are so many that we can barely cope,” rescue team paramedic Carlos Fuentes told IPS.

El Salvador has an average of 24.5 traffic-related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in a population of 6.2 million, ranking sixth on the list of countries in the region with the highest number of deaths in traffic accidents.

The list, prepared by the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) for the 2012 edition of its Health in the Americas report, is topped by the Dominican Republic, with 32.2 traffic-related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.

Leading causes of car accidents include speeding, drunk driving and distractions that cause motorists to divert their attention from the road, Officer Otto Urrutia, chief of the National Police Force’s Traffic Division, said.

“We have a lot of drunk drivers. It’s a mental health problem. Drunks are oblivious to danger,” he added.

However, Urrutia said that while still a frequent cause of fatal accidents, drunk driving is no longer the leading cause, as awareness-raising campaigns have succeeded in modifying drivers’ attitudes.

According to road regulations, a driver is legally intoxicated with 100 milligrams of alcohol per decilitre of blood, which is equivalent to about four beers. Traffic police patrol the country’s highways to ensure that drivers stay under this limit.

The risk of fatal road accidents increases when certain culturally determined behaviours come into play, such as motorcyclists’ refusal to use helmets or drivers’ and passengers’ refusal to wear safety belts, as required by law. Salvadorians are particularly averse to the use of safety belts, traffic authorities say.

Unsafe driving practices are widespread throughout Salvadoran society. In January the media gave extensive coverage to an accident involving a well-known parish priest, Abel Castaneda, of the San Julián church, in the western department of Sonsonate, who lost control of his car and crashed while driving drunk. He survived but his recklessness cost his 32-year-old nephew, Roberto Bolaños, his life.

Wrongful deaths caused by car crashes are not punishable with prison sentences if the person responsible pays the victim’s family damages, as Castaneda did.

Also alarming is the large number of accidents involving public transportation units. Such accidents are often attributed to speeding or recklessness, defective parts, mechanical failure or poorly maintained buses, most of which have been in operation beyond their useful life, according to the police chief.

“We’ve had several cases of bus crashes in which the evidence points to brake failure,” Urrutia explained. For example, two people died in November when the brakes on one of these ancient units failed as it was nearing the city of San Vicente, 58 kilometres east of San Salvador.

In September 2011, in an attempt to find a solution to this problem — which is common in many countries of the Americas — the region’s health ministers approved a new plan on road safety designed to reduce mortality rates from road traffic injuries through a series of actions implemented over the next five years, according to the United Nations Press Office.

The plan, approved during PAHO’s 51st Directing Council held in Washington D.C., calls on governments to strengthen existing legislation or pass any new laws that may be necessary to promote the use of seat belts, helmets and child restraints and to prevent excessive speed and alcohol consumption, as these are the five leading factors behind traffic injuries and deaths.

It also proposes adopting policies on public transportation and non-motorised transportation, improving pre-hospital care services for the injured, enhancing urban and road infrastructure, and creating inspection systems and technical inspection of vehicle fleets to meet with safety standards.

As Salvadoran laws do not provide for third-party liability insurance, on Dec. 14 congress passed a law creating an Assistance Fund for Traffic Accident Victims (Fonat), which will begin operating in April.

Under this law owners of registered motor vehicles will be required to pay a fee ranging from 35 to 250 dollars, depending on the size of their vehicle, which will bring in an estimated 41 million dollars a year for the fund.

Thirty-five percent of Fonat will be earmarked for the Health Ministry, to cover some seven million dollars in annual healthcare costs for traffic accident victims.

Another 30 percent will be allocated for compensation purposes, with payments of up to 4,000 dollars to victims or relatives of victims, and an additional 25 percent will be used by the government for acquisition of new buses to replace units that have been in circulation for over 20 years.

The rest of the fund will go to the establishment of a National Road Safety Council mandated with drafting policies for traffic accident prevention.

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