Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Bringing home a plea for safe roads

Advocate for safer roads abroad joins forces with county officials for improvements at home

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Rochelle Sobel, of Potomac, lost her 25-year-old son Aron in a traffic accident in Turkey in 1995. She is working with the county to reduce traffic accidents involving youths after founding the Association for Safe International Road Travel, a nonprofit that educates American tourists about road conditions abroad.
The family clunker is hardly anyone’s idea of a deadly weapon.

But with road crashes the leading cause of death worldwide for young people, county officials and a grieving mother are on a mission to change that attitude.

Rochelle Sobel, of Potomac, lost her 25-year-old son Aron in a bus crash in Turkey in 1995. Soon after the accident that claimed 22 lives, she talked on the phone with the U.S. ambassador in Turkey.

‘‘I told him I didn’t know what to do with my grief,” she said. ‘‘He suggested I start an organization dealing with the problem of international road safety. He said he was tired of sending bodies home in bags.”

So the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School teacher did just that by founding the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), a nonprofit she runs from her home.

‘‘Road crashes are the leading cause of death worldwide for healthy people age 10 to 24. They claim more than 3,000 lives a day, so it’s like 9⁄11 happens every day,” she said.

Working with federal and elected leaders in the United States and overseas, she advocates for the often simple measures it takes to improve road safety abroad: use of seatbelts, drunk-driving education and helmets for motorcyclists.

On Monday, Sobel joined a bevy of road safety advocates from Annapolis, the Capitol and Rockville at a press conference hosted by the county to mark the end of the first annual United Nation’s Global Road Safety Week.

The intent was to heighten awareness of the ‘‘global pandemic” of 1.2 million young people dying in car accidents each year, said state Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda.

The Washington area suffers an average of 31 traffic deaths weekly, he said, which is bad enough, but now prom season is looming.

‘‘Every parent, this time of year, holds their breath waiting for their child to come home safely,” said Bronrott, who helped launch Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980.

While Maryland enacted a zero-tolerance teen drinking and driving law and the Graduated Drivers Licensing laws to prevent accidents, he said more must be done.

‘‘We need highly visible campaigns to enforce those traffic safety laws,” he said. ‘‘We may need to go in and reengineer our county roads that were...built to move vehicles but treat our pedestrians as second class citizens.”

Preventing road fatalities begins with asking questions and getting answers, Sobel said.

‘‘As soon as Aron died, I started asking questions. Surprisingly, the State Department didn’t keep statistics on car deaths of Americans overseas,” she said. ‘‘But to their credit, the government listened and felt they’d been remiss.”

The State Department began tracking that data in 2002 and ASIRT now uses it in the ‘‘Road Travel Reports” it publishes for 150 different foreign countries.

Tourists intending to drive, or hire drivers, overseas use the reports to learn about road conditions, known dangerous routes, the unique driving norms in each country, and seasonal hazards.

‘‘Our motto is ‘know before you go,’” Sobel said. ‘‘People head off on vacation assuming nothing will happen. But it’s as important to know the road conditions as where the five-star hotels are located.”

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed.

‘‘Rochelle took her very personal tragedy and uses it to prevent other parents from suffering such a loss,” said U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington.

‘‘More Americans die overseas due to road conditions than political conditions,” he said, adding that foreign countries may opt to improve road conditions if such information is widely known.

He hopes to convince the State Department to expand its travel advisory messages to include information on road conditions.

As co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Global Road Safety, he hopes to pass pending legislation to establish a National Day of Remembrance of Road Crash Victims on the third Sunday of November.

‘‘The purpose is to focus people’s attention on a problem they don’t think about every day,” he said. ‘‘But road deaths are big problem, a big killer.”

Sobel said she hopes her efforts at home and abroad succeed in putting road safety ‘‘on the front burner” for every parent sending their child off in a car.

‘‘On prom night, know how they’re getting there, let them know [drinking] alcohol is not an option, make sure they have a cell phone,” she said. ‘‘Vigilance is key.”

She said she finds strength in the example set by her late son, a University of Maryland medical student working in Turkey at the time of his death.

‘‘He was an optimist, he wanted to help others,” she said. ‘‘If we can save one life in his honor, then we’ve achieved something.”

To learn more about ASIRT, go to www.asirt.org.