Keeping Safe on the road: Tips for Mums who Drive.

The other day, I was headed out to get some groceries with my seven year old. She asked if she could sit at the front, but I declined and asked her to sit and belt up in her booster seat at the back. Just before we turned out of our lane headed onto the main road, a car came speeding down and I had to brake immediately. I shudder to imagine what could have happened if I had let her sit at the front.

Sometime before we moved here, I was rear ended by a government parastatal vehicle in Nairobi traffic as I took my son to school. We were not hurt, thankfully, but shaken for quite a while. He was belted up in his booster seat at the back and I was scared he might be hurt.

Each time we drive, we take a risk as we do not know other road users’ behaviour so we need to be on guard at all times. In driving school, we are told to assume you are the only sane one on the road. Driving with kids does not make it easier. As a parent, you have to do your best to keep them safe when traveling with you.

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In this region, it is common to see parents driving with their kids at the front seats, not in their appropriate child car seats, and not belted up. This is obviously not right and needs to change. Safety first should be our motto.

As a driver, there are the usual things you do before you begin driving. Is the car fuelled? Do the tires have the right pressure? Is your windscreen clean? Are all the mirrors adjusted, are you aware of your blind spots? Is your seat adjusted to your height? New car models do the seat adjusting automatically based on one’s weight and height, but we live in a region with a lot of old second hand cars on the road, so those advantages are still far off for most of us to enjoy.

When you get in your car, always position the car seat, head rest, mirrors and steering wheel to the level you are comfortable at, and belt up BEFORE you start the car. Here is a good example on how to position yourself.

Did you know the first female crash test dummy was developed as recently as 2012? Despite the fact that women drive as much as men these days, it is unfortunate that crash tests have not taken into account how a female body is affected by vehicular impact- it does differ from a man’s body and how it reacts in car crashes. You can read more on this here and here.

The tips below are not exhaustive, neither are they listed in any particular order of importance, but they are all paramount for anyone driving with children, or just themselves. I learnt some of them in driving school, others in a Ford Driving Skills for life course, some through experience and others as advised by my husband, who is a safety and defensive driving consultant.

1. Registration, Insurance and Manuals. Obviously before one drives, you should ensure you have your updated license and registration with you, and a copy of your insurance sticker displayed as per the local laws. It is also important to keep the car manual in the car at all times, preferably in the dashboard drawer/ glove compartment, where it is within easy reach. You should also read it to familiarise yourself with your vehicle. In the glove compartment, you can also put in some emergency contacts. It pays to belong to a local automobile road rescue organisation, such as AA or Infama, that offer 24 hour road rescue assistance to their members. Ensure you place the sticker on display too.

2.Vehicle Safety Equipment. Your vehicle should have a spare tyre. Check it regularly to ensure it has adequate pressure. Also have a tire kit that includes the jack, wrench,( a tire gauge and pressure pump if you can get them,) and a mat to lie on in case you need to check under the car.

Tow ropes and jump cables come in handy too. Other safety gear you need are flares (this usually come with the vehicle), reflective safety triangles, a First Aid box, a torch with extra batteries and a car fire extinguisher. You can add a basic tool box, a reflective jacket, a pair of work gloves, and a microfibre cloth to wipe the mirrors, a raincoat and an umbrella. Some bottles of water, energy bars and a warm blanket are important too in case you are stuck on the road for a long time.

Your safety equipment should be checked about twice or thrice a year to ensure it is still usable and not expired or worn.

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3.Garbage Disposal. Have some plastic bags or a small bin to place your trash in when driving, which you can dispose off properly at home or your destination. It is very irritating and disappointing to see people throw trash out the car window with no regard to the environment and other road users. It is important to also teach our children how to clean up after themselves, and this is a simple way of doing it.

4.Water and snacks. These are important when driving with kids. Have everyone’s water bottle filled up and some snacks packed up. This could be potato crisps, popcorn, mandazi, grapes, apples or any other chopped up fruit which you can pack in their individual lunchboxes. That way you all have what we you need near you and it is less messier than having to pass the food around in the car.

5. Money. This includes loose change for paying for parking, or a loaded parking card if you have one. It is good to have a little emergency stash of cash hidden in the vehicle too for emergencies.

6. Sanitizer, Wipes and Tissue. An alcohol based sanitizer and wet wipes are great for cleaning up your hands and surfaces. Toilet roll is great for loo breaks and also clean up messes that may happen in the car. With the Coronavirus outbreak, the sanitizer is especially important to clean your hands and your car surfaces.

7. Reusable Grocery Bags. Kenya has been cutting down on plastic waste, so you have to have your own shopping bag as there are no more plastic bags. Uganda is following suit as well as other countries. It is environmentally friendly to have reusable bags and keeping them in the car is handy for those grocery trips. You can have them colour coded too for different packaging, especially for frozen food, fruits and detergents which you want kept separate. In our culture, once you get married you are given a woven basket called a “kiondo“, I have quite a few that have come in handy when shopping.

8. Car phone charger. This is important. You do not want to get stuck in crazy traffic, or on a long trip, or with cranky kids, with a dead phone and no way to inform your loved ones what has happened. (This has happened to me and I learnt my lesson then).

Note: Please avoid using your phone when driving too, It is a distraction and illegal in some countries.

9. Change of clothes- You need to have this when traveling with kids, though it is dependent on their ages. Some kids get motion sickness and may throw up on themselves, or mess themselves in another way. A small towel and wet wipes come in handy too in such instances.

10. Miscellaneous– Other optional things that can be kept in the car and will help you as a driving mum are lip balm, mints or some hard candy, painkillers, a travel sewing kit, a female emergency kit (Pads, tampons, cramp medication, extra underwear and pocket tissue), sunscreen and hand lotion, sunglasses and last but not least a notebook and pen. I also keep a novel or word puzzle book to keep me busy if I am parked waiting somewhere.

The list may seem long, but all these are important to have when on the road.

Obey the traffic rules at all times. There are no exceptions, don’t overlap or overtake carelessly just because there are no traffic police or cameras watching you. The rules are there to help and keep all road users safe.

Always stay focused. Pay attention to the road and your surroundings.

Avoid distraction and keep calm. The kids always sense when you are agitated. If it happens, it is ok to park on the side of the road and calm down. If they are agitated, you can play their favorite song and have their toys on hand if younger to sooth them as you drive.

Other things to consider are:-

Car Seats

When driving with children, you need a child’s car seat for each of your kids. Before you buy one, it is important to shop around and check reviews (both online and asking other parents) before you decide on the brand to buy. Car seats also go by age, and weight so please get the appropriate one. Here are some important considerations to note when doing so.

Once you have the appropriate child car seat, keep it installed and harnessed to the car ‘s back seat as per the manufacturer’s instructions for maximum safety. It is important to note that car seats have an expiration date and this is why. Also follow the manufacturer’s instructions for care on the same. In short, clean the car seat folks. Those seats get sticky and grimy, there is absolutely no excuse why you should have your child in a dirty car seat. Always keep the seat harnessed and the child buckled in at the back.

Safety tip: Avoid having heavy stuff loaded behind the child’s eat or piled luggage. If you have to brake suddenly, or in case of any impact from behind, these can topple onto your child and hurt them.

Road Travel

If you are going on a long road trip with the children, carry enough water , drinks and healthy snacks for them. Have frequent toilet and stretch breaks so they do not tire too much. Depending on age, you can download their favourite music or movies for them onto a tablet and let them enjoy a bit of distraction. Music CDs and story books help too. Remember you know your kids best, so pick out what they enjoy at their age. My kids love looking out the window and enjoying the scenery, so a tablet is not a first option for them. Talk to them about the changing scenery. Play ” I Spy” , or “Spot On my side”, or the “alphabet game” or come up with a new fun game as a family while on the road.

On long drives, you can play “I Spy” and enjoy the changing scenery.

Other Driving Tips.

On normal day to day driving, always be alert when on the road. I usually hear folks saying women drive too slow, I think it is because we take our time paying attention to our surroundings to be safe.

As a driver, as you plan your journey and and when on the road, you need to be able to recognise various hazards around you. Scan for what can be a cause of trouble. Is it the pedestrian with earphones who will not hear incoming vehicles? The huge potholes? The suspicious looking biker? What are your blind spots?

Driving in Kampala is quite the unique driving experience. I always joke that being able to navigate through the city traffic on a weekday is a practical lesson on defensive driving. With many motorbikes on the road and crazily driven public transport vehicles, you have to be alert at all times! In addition, there are drivers who do not bother to use their indicators or are unable to size their lanes, some roads are in bad condition, as well as poorly maintained vehicles that may just stall in front of you with no warning. (I mentioned a bit of my experience here. )Add to that pausing at intersections and sometimes the traffic lights do not work. The terrain matters too. Kampala is quite hilly and there are many routes with blind spots; some even have a volunteer who acts as a marshal to let you know when it is clear to move.

How do you handle your vehicle? Do you service it as required? Do you take your car to a qualified and reputable garage? Do you have a reliable mechanic’s contact, who you can call and troubleshoot over the phone if you are stuck somewhere suddenly, before you are rescued?

How is your braking, acceleration and deceleration? Are you able to drive when it rains? I dread it here during the rainy season as some of the potholes fill up with water and one cannot be sure of how deep they are. Some roads also flood when it rains so if I can, I avoid driving in the rain. If you have to, switch on your lights and keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times. Avoid flooded areas but if caught up on a flooded road and you are unsure of the depth, slow down and accelerate gently, let the car more or less glide. Try not to panic or brake suddenly, it is important for you to keep moving.

Do you keep to stipulated speed limits? Or are you a rule breaker? Do you let pedestrians have right of way at the pedestrian crossing? Do you overlap and overtake carelessly? Remember, safety is paramount for ALL road users, and why would you want to speed and endanger your children in the car? Breaking traffic rules is an easy way of teaching our children how to NOT do the right thing. Remember, kids learn more by observing what we do, not what we say. Obey the traffic laws at all times and Always maintain a safe driving speed.

It is important to maintain a safe distance between your vehicle and others. Always assume you are the only sane driver on the road. Anticipate or “drive in your mind” at least two cars ahead and one behind you – it sounds difficult but it is all about anticipating sudden changes. The person in front of you can brake suddenly and if you are too close you will rear end them. Or the one behind you may decide to overtake suddenly on a dual carriage and have to suddenly divert in front of you to avoid oncoming traffic. Once again, you are the only sane one on the road.

As a safety precaution, lock your doors immediately you get in the car. Avoid also locking your car at a distance, I see people do that a lot and it is not wise. Lock then confirm the car is locked before walking away. Keep valuables out of sight, or take them with you. Avoid using shortcuts or unpredictable routes as a female driver too. Also change up the times you leave home or the office to confuse anyone who may be following you. I like parking in well lit areas where I can see the CCTV cameras clearly, it makes me feel a bit safer than a dark basement.

Driving with the kids is an enjoyable experience, but safety is paramount above all else. Being alert and prepared does not mean you may never have an accident, but at least you are doing your part to keep safe as a responsible road user.

You may also consider taking advanced driving lessons offered in your region to brush up your skills. There are some driving schools that offer advanced driving lessons for female drivers; The Glen Edmunds Advanced Driving School in Nairobi offers such courses. Some car dealers also organise car clinics for female drivers, it does not hurt to attend such if possible. Learning is a life long process after all.

As a mother who is on the road daily, I have to remind myself to stay calm and remain alert. I cannot afford to compromise the children and my safety as well as other road users’ wellbeing when on the road. Accidents do happen, but I shall strive to be a conscientious and responsible road user.

What else do you consider important to note as a driving Mom or parent?

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