Why can’t we buckle up?

Published: October 14, 2014

Not wearing a seat belt is a cultural norm in Pakistan, one that hardly changes across socioeconomic levels. PHOTO: FILE

Pakistan’s television industry has seen from amazing times – when classics such as Dhoop Kinarey charmed viewers all around the country as well as across the border – to the not-so-amazing times, when aunties gathered around television screens for nothing better than saas-bahu’ soaps.

Fortunately, the growth in television productions has recently been phenomenal, with dozens of serials airing on the ever growing number of television channels in the country. As the entertainment industry expands, its impact on society surpasses the mere purpose of entertaining. It begins to highlight social issues and influences thinking and behaviour among the population. A ton of storytelling on Pakistani television today pinpoints the plaguing issues our people continue to face, dowry being one of them.

However, the realisation of road safety as an issue still remains insignificant. According to WHO,

“Seat belts reduce the risk of a fatal injury by up to 50% for front seat occupants, and up to 75% for rear seat occupants.”

The same report, published in 2013, notes that Pakistan’s seat belt laws are short of being comprehensive, that is, they do not cover both front seat and rear seat occupants. Even for the laws in place, enforcement remains low. We’ve all seen cab drivers pretending to wear seat belts to avoid being ‘caught’ by traffic police in the federal capital by simply putting on a belt with no buckles at the end.

It is a commonly held notion in our country that Pakistanis are forced to learn road safety rules after having travelled to countries such as the United States, Britain and Canada, where the law enforcement on such issues remains strong. Yet, as soon as they exit the airport, after landing in Pakistan, their actions return to breaking traffic signals, over speeding and not letting seat belts infringe upon our ‘independence’. A small segment of our urban population does, however, emphasise on the use of seat belts as a necessary practice of our daily routines and an even greater responsibility rests on their shoulders to spread the message among their family and friends.

So how does the television medium come into play with road safety?

As the scope of our TV productions has moved beyond studios to real homes and offices, a tremendous number of scenes are also shot in cars. Cars are the new living room. Characters cover everything from worries of not being able to convince their parents to agreement of their marriages to receiving urgent phone calls. Yet, I am still waiting to come across one scene where folks in the car are wearing seat belts. One can’t help but notice that shows shot in Pakistan largely follow this trend, whereas serials shot abroad do have actors wearing seat belts as an everyday practice.

Shouldn’t it be the same in Pakistan as well?

The reason I focus my attention on TV serials is because television possesses the ability to break through the socioeconomic divide and is thus responsible to spread awareness and set role models. We have witnessed warnings next to scenes where actors are smoking, yet road safety remains largely ignored. Not wearing a seat belt is a cultural norm in Pakistan, one that hardly changes across socioeconomic levels. I cringe every single time one of our actors is shown driving a car without having fastened their seat belts and all occupants follow suit. Car rides with seat belts on are not minimal; they are practically non-existent on television.

I encourage our television producers, directors and actors to bring this matter to the forefront and ensure the use of seat belts in all Pakistani television shows.  Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) could also be a prominent player in inducing this change. I expect such a move to not only enhance safety for the cast and crew but to trigger a societal response.

Men, women, girls and boys all around the world, for the lack of a better expression, imitate their television, film and music role models for their dressing and behaviour. Boutiques create and market a variety of popular dresses worn by actors and actresses. The same goes for jewellery designs. A similar awareness campaign is reflected in warnings that go hand in hand with cigarette advertisements. The smoking-is-so-cool narrative is followed by its not-so-cool damaging health effects. Seat belts could share a similar narrative. Let’s make wearing one the-new-cool!

Mashal Amjad

Mashal Amjad

The author currently works in economic development and is based in Washington DC. A LUMS grad with an MA in International Affairs, Mashal writes about politics, economics and culture. She tweets @mashal07 (www.twitter.com/mashal07).

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.