Stay safe and cool on the road this summer
July 18, 2019 | 8:51 AM
by Gautam Viswanathan

Saeed rose early on Friday morning. He and his family would be travelling up into the mountains of Jabal Akhdar to escape the stifling Arab heat. His daughter, Roya, barely able to contain her excitement, had been unable to sleep all night, while his son, Salim, had spent most of the previous day with his father while he made sure their four-wheel drive was able to withstand the long journey, much of which would be either over scorching stretches of road, or winding mountain paths.

While Saeed had made sure his vehicle was ready to go, keeping an eagle eye on proceedings was his wife, Amna, who ensured her husband had indeed double-checked everything, so that no untoward incidents would occur.

Saeed ensured his family left shortly after the sun rose, so that they could cover as much distance as possible before the summer heat reached its height that day. After stopping to enjoy some karak tea and traditional unleavened Omani rakhal bread for breakfast, Saeed and his family sped on towards Nizwa, where they would meet up with the friends who would be joining them on their cautious climb up the green mountain.

However, as the clock inched towards noon, Saeed began to feel a little light-headed. Dismissing it as the sort of monotony one feels when driving long distances, Saeed shook his head in an attempt to refocus his concentration on the journey. His wife shot him a worried glance, but he dismissed her concerns with a wave of his hand.

Five minutes later, though, things weren’t as casual. The light-headedness that he had tried to ignore was back, and this time stronger. Sensing his discomfort, Amna placed a firm hand on his, and asked him to pull into the nearest service station.

During the summer vacations in Oman and the rest of the Middle East, driving under the hot summer sun can cause severe health issues that affect not just you and the people in your car, but others on the road as well.

To find out why this happens and how road users can counteract the effects of driving under the sun, we spoke to Ali Al Barwani, a member and former CEO of the Oman Road Safety Association, who shared with us some tips and tricks for staying alert on the roads this summer.

“On the road, one of the biggest killers is fatigue,” said Ali. “If it is hot, you will tire, and you will lack concentration: you should not be driving . Take a break, sleep for a while, then move. If you feel tired on the road, 15 minutes rest is all that you need. It will save lives. Stop at the side of the road and take some rest.”

“We do understand this from experience, and it is an established practice for road safety,” he added. “If you are tired, you might choose to wash your face with cold water, or you might buy some energy drinks, or have a cup of tea or coffee. But you should go to a safe place and have a nap for 15 minutes. You will be refreshed and then you can continue.”

Ali explained that while fatigue did affect many motorists on the road throughout the year, the body required more resources to maintain itself during the summer months, leading to people becoming tired at a faster rate. Fatigued drivers on the road make slower decisions, potentially leading to more accidents.

“It is noticeable during Ramadan and the summer months, that accident rates do unfortunately tend to become higher. During summer, you can see a number of cars stopping by the side of the road, with people opening their bonnets to see what is wrong. I think we need to do proper maintenance on our cars before we move. We need to check our cars are roadworthy, especially before long journeys.”

“The peak hours of the summer heat are felt between 12 noon and 3pm, when the temperature is at its highest. In summer, people go on vacation, they take trips, and one of the most famous roads is the one between Muscat and Salalah, where unfortunately many accidents have taken place in the past.”

Al Barwani added: “During the summer months, our focus is on the main roads that people take. We go to these roads and we think about what we can do to ensure that people travelling on this route can take proper precautions.”

“Summer brings with it long journeys so people need to be careful. For example, a lot of people have things like soft drink cans and glass bottles lying around their car. Please make sure you throw rubbish like this away, because if there is an accident and a bottle breaks, then it could damage the airbags or cause further harm.”

Irrespective of which country you live in, the negative health effects of heat are felt by everyone. According to the Department of Health and Human Services in the State Government of Victoria in Australia, driving under the hot sun can lead to five main heat-related problems. They are heat rash, heat cramps, dizziness and fainting, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

In addition, one of the problems brought about by intense weather is a worsening of any existing conditions people might have.

Heat rash, also known as ‘prickly heat’, “is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating,” said the department. “It can occur at any age but is most common in young children. It looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. It is most likely to occur on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts and in the elbow creases.”

Heat cramps on the other hand, include muscle pain and spasms, normally localised to the abdomen, arms and/or legs. They normally occur after strenuous activity in a hot environment, caused by excessive loss of salt and water. Drivers on the road must also be on the lookout for dizziness and fainting caused due to heat stress. These often occur due to reduced blood flow to the brain, with more blood collecting near the legs, leading to a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Heat exhaustion is another problem that develops due to excessive exposure to heat. If not treated properly, heat exhaustion can worsen into a heatstroke, with excessive sweating causing a reduction in blood volume. The symptoms of heat exhaustion are paleness, sweating, rapid heart rate, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fainting and muscle cramps.

However, while all of these concerns can be dealt with in a short while, the one problem that requires immediate attention is a heatstroke.

“This is a medical emergency and requires urgent attention,” explained the Department of Health and Human Services. “Heatstroke occurs when the core body temperature rises above 40.5 °C and the body’s internal systems start to shut down. Many organs in the body suffer damage and the body temperature must be reduced quickly. Most people will have profound central nervous system changes such as delirium, coma and seizures. The person may stagger, appear confused, have a fit or collapse and become unconscious. As well as effects on the nervous system, there can be liver, kidney, muscle and heart damage.”

Dr A Basheer, a senior internist at Badr Al Sama’a Hospitals, said he did see many patients complain of heat exhaustion during the summer months.

“For about a month now, we have been receiving four to five people per day in our emergency department with all kinds of heat exposure issues like cramps, heat stroke and much more,” he explained. “Keep hydrated, because that is the best way to avoid heat exhaustion”.

He added: “It is common for those who are driving to keep their bottles in the sun, but this is dangerous, so keep the water in a shaded place as well. It is better to cover these bottles with a cloth, so that sunlight does not directly penetrate them. In the long-term, plastics in water can cause cancer. While long-term exposure is definitely dangerous, it is also common to suffer from lung diseases in the short-term. It is dangerous to keep plastic bottles in your cars and in places that have direct exposure to sunlight.”

While it is of course important to educate drivers about the harmful impact of heat exhaustion and heat stress, Ali Al Barwani says prevention of such symptoms is far better than cure. To highlight this, Oman Road Safety, in association with the Royal Oman Police and other traffic safety bodies, organises a competition for schoolchildren that takes place once every two years.

Schools from all over Oman are required to participate, and the competition provides an insight into not just how traffic issues can be solved but is also used to gauge what children see as the most pressing concerns regarding traffic safety in the country. This very valuable source of feedback shows decision makers and traffic safety organisations just what children feel are the most important issues now and the ones that could one day affect them in the future as well.

“What we have started is educating the little ones with the basic rules of traffic. How to cross the road correctly, how to understand traffic safety, how to sit safely in buses and cars. We have been doing this since for two years now, in direct communication with the schools, and have teachers who deliver these safety activities to the students .” explained Ali.

“There are competitions going on as well from time to time, covering many aspects of traffic safety,” he added. “The scheme is organised by the Royal Oman Police, covers all 61 Wilayats in Oman, and includes both the public and the private sector as well as individuals.”.

With more than a thousand schools across the Sultanate participating in the road safety awareness scheme, Ali believes that inculcating the right habits in the next generation will reduce accidents in the future. However, he feels that students need to be encouraged to think of a larger spread of methods to promote traffic safety, instead of solely reinforcing a set number of ideas over and over again.

This will encourage children to think beyond just the immediate causes of traffic accidents and enable them to suggest to policy and decision makers more inclusive solutions that provide better safety nets when it comes to traffic monitoring and accident reduction.

“We have more than 1,000 schools in this country, so all of them have the opportunity to take part in this competition,” he explained. “You need to continue this, you can’t just do it for a month and then leave it, because road safety awareness has to be sustainable. Having road safety education in schools is really important, we at ORSA feel. It is already there in the curriculum, but perhaps we need to enhance and review this so that it meets the right objectives.”

“What we notice is that these competitions are popular, but we need to make it more meaningful. We sometimes repeat things that don’t have big value, so we must provide guidance to people who are doing research in area that could have more impact”.

According to Ali, while there are those who understand the harmful effects of long-term exposure to heat, even if you are in an air-conditioned vehicle, there are still those who feel that the problems motorists are likely to face will not affect them, and appear to have an ‘it will not happen to me’ mindset.

However, Ali advises everyone to prepare for mishaps that might happen on the road, without taking for granted the safety that your car provides you.

“There are two types of rules: road safety, and for administration and traffic management,” he revealed. “For us at ORSA, it is a very simple logic behind the rules – safety first. Many people don’t understand this, and they don’t see it until they become a victim themselves”

“They think that the listed dangers on the road will not happen to them, they will only happen to other people,” added Ali. “They think that the rules and guidelines of the road are different for them. People might question simple safety rules, for example, having your phone in a holder in the car. However, even when it comes to these phone holders, there is a right way and a wrong way to install them.”

“This needs to be understood by people, because the wrong way means the phone could easily distract you, but the right way is one in which that can’t happen. These days, you need the phone, because many people use their navigation system, but even then, you have to follow the rules.”

Ali= chose to sum up his message to people travelling on the roads during the summer in just three words.

“For a number of reasons, there is a tendency for more accidents to happen in the summer months. Because it is hot outside, sometimes, you can be in a rush to go home, or to get to your destination, because you don’t want to be in the heat. So, for the country, I have a message: slow down, Oman.”

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