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A worthy cause for public benefit

A worthy cause for public benefit

Sandra Vitale lost her beloved son in 2009 as a result of a car accident. The unanticipated misfortune led her to turn to a new mission of becoming an advocate for road safety within Ethiopia – a country that has pressing issues with recurrent traffic accidents. In this week’s edition, she shares with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter about losing her son, her advocacy work and reflects on what she is doing to help a major problem in the nation. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Overwhelming deaths due to traffic accidents are happening are in countries such as Ethiopia – countries that are for the most part considered to be lower income nations. Why do you think that is?

Vitale Sandra: Traffic accidents are a major problem in both developed and developing countries, although related to different reasons and circumstances. Road accidents are happening most often due to reckless and speedy driving; not obeying or following traffic rules; overburdened or overcapacity hauling of public and transport vehicles; poor maintenance of vehicles; drunk driving; and driver fatigue.

If we talk about Ethiopia we have to consider that urbanization is growing extremely fast and everyone has to adapt to this growth, which is not always easy. Just a few years back, the ring road, the expressway and the light rail train that crosses the city did not exist. Everyone should take part in this growth by respecting traffic rules. We all have a duty in this development.

You have a very personal story to tell when it comes to roadside accidents where your son was a victim of an accident. Tell me about that?

My son, Nicholas, was an extremely generous soul. It happened on July 4, 2009. He was 24 years old. In Nicholas's case, had he fastened the seat belt, he would have been alive. At the time fastening seat belts was not mandatory in Ethiopia. I think he was speeding and a truck blocked his way and made him lose control of the car. That is when I immediately started a seat belt fastening campaign in Ethiopia.

That life changing experience did not deter you from becoming an advocate for road safety within Ethiopia. Many parents continue to experience similar experiences. Share with me the highlights of your role in helping educate and inform the public about the issue of road safety?

This is the worst of tragedies for a mother. It goes against the cycle of life. It means losing the direction of your life. After this profound and immense grief I thought it was a mother's duty to create awareness. I had no choice but to make my son live again by making him the icon of road safety in Ethiopia. To me knowing that I am trying to save even one life is like having my son in my arms again. I simply tried to make this tragedy a constructive campaign to save other people from accidents.

I cannot bring him back. All I can do is try to prevent other mothers from going through similar agony like I did. Nicholas was so close to Ethiopia and was very much involved in charities. I am trying to continue his mission in life.

If we talk about education, it should be everyone's duty to try to prevent and teach. Road safety involves every one; road safety has no age; and road safety has no religion or nationality. We are all on the streets every day, by car, on foot, etc. And road accidents are preventable. All I am trying to do it to remind these rules. Nicholas's story and his short life have to be examples for Ethiopians to make them ponder and understand how dangerous a car can be while speeding and how important road safety is. An association of parents that went through a similar situation to mine could also help a lot psychological and it could be a great contribution to society. I wish I could help all those parents like me.

You have launched a book – Children of Today, Drivers of Tomorrow”. Tell me about that?

I was so eager to launch this booklet because I always firmly thought that children must be prepared to deal with the daily traffic which is growing daily and will not stop growing. Imagine cities in 10/15 years’ time.

Sometimes we get upset with some young drivers on the streets. But, unless these drivers are prepared at a young age, it will take a lot of experience for them to respect the rules and realize how dangerous the streets can be.

Many countries teach road safety in primary schools. In Italy, for example, they have a couple of hours weekly classes on road ethics in all primaries the schools as a curriculum. I thought why not in Ethiopia. I had the draft since almost two years and I was waiting to be posted back to Ethiopia to be able to launch it. I take this opportunity to deeply thank Desalegn Kilfe, who was always on my side. He was my pillar since I conceived this project. I would also like to thank Biniam Mesghen for the graphic design and his generosity and Yohannis Lemma, who was next to me since this tragedy and who helped me on the technical part of the book. Last but not least, Anteneh Seyoum, an amazing artist, who was able to draw the beautiful images. I have had many sponsors which I take this opportunity to thank again.

The target audience is obviously young people. Do you think they are listening?

It is not easy to give the message to young people especially teenagers. I think parents and communities have to also intervene. In some countries there are strict controls in front of nightclubs and discos. Police stand in front of those places where youngsters gather on Saturday nights and make strict controls. They stop them if they are not able to drive and immediately call taxis to take them back home. There shall be a serious control on alcohol and driving/speeding. Schools have also a big role in education and raising awareness.

You have donated thousands of copies of your books to the Ministry of Education. How do you want these books to be used by the Ministry?

I really hope my book will be a valid instrument to give the basic ethics on road safety to children age eight to 12. Of course, this booklet will be improved with the help of experts, and we will have, in the future, different editions for all ages. But I hope it will be a good start.

Since 2009, Ethiopia has come up with an action plan on how to reduce accidents such as mandatory fastening of seatbelts, random alcohol test and speed limits. Has that changed the statistics?

Permit me to add that when I approached officials at the Ethiopian Roads Authority, in July 2009, I was warmly welcomed by each and every member of the Ethiopian government and all of them helped me to implement my campaign. That is when I started a seatbelt campaign in Ethiopia in memory of my son that I was able to broadcast through radio, TV, and newspapers. You cannot imagine the joy I felt when representatives of the Federal Transport Authority informed me that in 2010/11, even though road accidents were unfortunately increasing, fatalities were decreasing.

I hope that this little booklet will be a good start and a valid instrument that would benefit children in Ethiopia. I hope that many mothers like me can join this campaign. I am an Italian born in Ethiopia with an Ethiopian grandmother who passed away a few years ago. Thanks to her and to the love and respect I have for Ethiopia, I found the courage to work on road safety awareness.