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DARWIN FIGUERA

Venezuela,

Through education Darwin Figuera is promoting a sea change in the culture of road safety in Venezuela, where mortality rates from motor vehicle accidents are among the highest in the world. Darwin promotes a comprehensive and compulsory course on road safety taught throughout the formal education system that equips students to be multipliers of the information to parents, guardians and future generations. 

This profile below was prepared when Darwin Figuera was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.

INTRODUCTION

Through education Darwin Figuera is promoting a sea change in the culture of road safety in Venezuela, where mortality rates from motor vehicle accidents are among the highest in the world. Darwin promotes a comprehensive and compulsory course on road safety taught throughout the formal education system that equips students to be multipliers of the information to parents, guardians and future generations. 




THE NEW IDEA

Darwin understands that the average Venezuelan driver receives little to no regulated training before getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. While ranked 44th out of 222 nations in terms of length of roadways available in the nation, much of Venezuela’s roadways are unmaintained and therefore pose a threat to pedestrians and motorists alike. 

Darwin launched the Center for Education Research and Road Safety (Ciesvial), a program that reaches beyond simply learning how to drive a vehicle safely. Through his program, Darwin hopes to change the vehicular culture of Venezuela. He proposes a massive new education program through the formal primary and secondary school system that reaches children on a national scale. These students will then become spokespersons for road safety in the home, allowing for families to further engage in the topic of vehicular regulations. Through this process, teachers will also be engaged and trained to teach the content. By creating a uniform curriculum that is officially endorsed nationwide, Darwin overcomes barriers in poor and ineffective knowledge sharing among the Venezuelan driver’s education program and allows for a better understanding of the realities of road mortalities. Darwin believes that communities will assert themselves and force state and local governments to act more effectively and efficiently to address this public health problem. 

Darwin’s approach includes several additional facets that bridge many different groups and sectors and creates a unified coalition. Regarding the state, he proposes creating a law that obligates the education system to incorporate a drivers’ education program into elementary and secondary schools. Regarding the citizen sector, Darwin wants to recruit more families to fight for safer driving. He also hopes to incorporate motorcycle riders in this campaign and to help them, as well as taxi drivers, to become part of the solution to the driving problem, at the same time they break apart the social stigma around those two sectors. Finally, Darwin has been able to rely heavily on volunteers to advance his mission of making the roadways in Venezuela safe for all motorists. 




THE PROBLEM

The World Health Organization considers road traffic injuries an international epidemic, given that worldwide vehicular accidents were ranked as the 9th leading cause of death in 2004, a figure that is set to rise in the coming years. 90 percent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income nations, such as Venezuela. Venezuela’s rate of traffic mortality of 21.8 deaths per 100,000 people is the highest in Latin America; 50 percent higher than the US and triple the rate of the European Union. In addition, it is now the number one cause of death among infants in Venezuela.

For Darwin, though, the central problem behind vehicular mortality in Venezuela is the people themselves. Traffic problems are made worse through attitudes and lack of knowledge of citizens behind the wheel. 90 percent of all traffic accidents are caused by human error, such as not wearing a seatbelt, driving under the influence of alcohol or talking on the phone while driving. Due to the fact that traffic education is not mandatory in Venezuela, drivers tend to behave with a dangerously carefree attitude that the government has yet to address. In fact, according to statistics, 78 percent of front seat passengers do not wear a seatbelt, and an alarming 97 percent of back seat passengers do not. Traffic accidents in Venezuela have a high mortality rate, exceeding 21 per 100,000 people, creating a public health problem at 8,000 deaths a year, and the highest mortality among children aged 5 to 14. In addition to these mortalities, it is also estimated that for one person who dies, 30 more are disabled by traffic accidents. 

The traffic accidents and deaths generally stem from preventable issues. Currently, there are no sustained educational efforts surrounding vehicular safety. Current resources do not use any sort of systematic methodology or audiovisual materials relating to the local context. Instructors are not well-versed in combating vehicular risks or in teaching others to mitigate these problems. The few courses that exist are uninteresting, and most people just blame the government for not protecting the roadways, while ultimately, the problem lies with drivers. As the fourth leading cause of death in Venezuela, the issue of vehicular mortality and injury creates a costly burden for the health system, let alone a tragic and easily preventable cause of fatality. 




THE STRATEGY

From the beginning, Darwin realized the cause of vehicular chaos in Venezuela stemmed from an absence of education. He gives the example of spotty traffic education given to children: while they understand the meaning behind the colors of traffic light signals, they are not taught to be cautious as a pedestrian near parked cars. These dangers pervade their everyday realities, particularly around schools. Darwin sees the need for sustained and supported societal transformers in addition to uniform information adapted for Venezuela. 

Darwin’s educational content development addresses these specific issues. The workshops he gives in schools are more interesting and attract far more children. The children are involved in evaluating the diverse and interactive materials he uses, which are adapted to the Venezuelan context. Darwin trains teachers to fully explain the risks regarding traffic to students. The students will then act as “traffic cops” among their own families. The pressure to behave as a strong role model for their children will encourage parents to drive more safely. Children are encouraged to symbolically “fine” their parents if they commit a traffic violation in their presence. So far, approximately 4,500 children have received these trainings from 75 schools. 

Ciesvial originally started through direct service activities, performing the workshops themselves in the schools. Then Darwin realized that in order to reach more people, he needed to shift the strategy to a train-the-trainer model. Now, pupils of the workshops become promoters of the Ciesvial curriculum in other schools. This strategy led him to develop new networks. He offers a certificate course in Education for Safe Driving at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Darwin has also developed networks of families motivated by the topic to become spokespersons on behalf of Ciesvial, and they become advocates for road safety among state transit authorities. He has developed a course for members of the armed forces; to receive a promotion soldiers must know about defensive driving, and to date, Darwin and his organization have trained approximately 3,750 soldiers. 

Mandatory road safety education is Darwin’s long-term vision, and Ciesvial has adopted a major policy advocacy tactic to do this. Darwin is promoting a law that would be responsible for designing the guidelines of road safety education during childhood based on three pillars: education, control, and punishment. So far, he and his organization have drafted a bill that is currently in consultation with members of the civil society and experts on safe driving. As soon as this is done they will start a lobbying campaign to propose the law in the National Assembly. 

Because of the role that alcohol consumption plays in many of Venezuela’s vehicular accidents, Darwin has developed a strategy particular to punishing and reducing drunk driving. Mobilized around this vision are advocates for road safety. Darwin identifies people in strategic areas and educates them in how to measure the blood alcohol levels of drivers. He has also launched a campaign that encourages drivers to drink less on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. This campaign is similar to one that was launched in Colombia. This program starts with a preventive stage, in which organizations like Ciesviel alert drivers in night clubs about the maximum limit of alcohol they should consume. Later, they hope to involve the municipal counties so that alcohol meters may be used in clubs and restaurants with the support of the municipal police. At the moment they are researching which are the most problematic municipals with regard to alcohol consumption while driving.

Especially mobilized around Darwin’s vision are “nontraditional actors”—from school children to taxi drivers. He built his first network of advocates among taxi drivers, who often feel socially marginalized and that their work is not properly recognized. Darwin was able to incorporate taxi drivers into the platform by preparing them as volunteers who can provide emergency assistance to drivers in road accidents. The strategy to involve taxi drivers (at the moment there are around 1,900 taxi drivers) in the campaign came by recognizing their important role and by voicing their challenges on the radio. This recognizes their contributions to the community and boosts their image, since many have worked as volunteers and given assistance to people in accidents. At the same time he wants to involve the municipal authorities, governments and ministries, and above all the Institute for Land Transportation, the most important public agency for this issue, yet remarkably the most absent in seeking a solution. He seeks to create a Council on Transportation Safety to regulate safe driving in the country, through the cooperation of municipal, regional, and national authorities. Darwin is convinced that making entire families work to create awareness about the thousands of deaths on the roads will have a significant impact.




THE PERSON

As a teenager, Darwin was fascinated by radio, and joined a journalism club in high school. Although lacking the resources to install a traditional radio station he opened an alternative community radio. Darwin pioneered this type of media on what started as a salsa station, the popular music genre in his home state of Aragua. Later, he gained new listeners among taxi drivers. As he came in closer contact with them, Darwin became aware of the serious problem that pervaded Venezuela’s streets—the high rates of vehicle mortality. 

Darwin founded Ciesvial, of which he is its president to address road safety. He also serves as the academic director of the first master’s degree in Mobility and Road Safety, given by Ciesvial at the Central University of Venezuela. After completing coursework in road safety education at the University of Salamanca, Spain, Darwin is also a respected lecturer representing Venezuela at international road safety conferences in Argentina, Colombia and Spain. He recently created a children’s road safety training program in partnership with the Seguros Caracas Foundation. All of this activity has led to road safety as his life mission.

Of the many lives that Darwin has indirectly saved, he remembers the story of a taxi driver who called to thank him. After listening to one of Ciesvial’s radio programs, the driver started to wear a seatbelt. While campaigns encourage drivers to use seatbelts few explain the reasons why, said the driver, and after a hard collision he was convinced that this new habit saved his life. Stories like these compel Darwin to pursue his vision of making Venezuela’s roads safe and secure. 




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