Prevention beats cure at young people's safety centre

Jenny Lee gets an eye-opening experience at Belfast's new interactive safety and life skills centre, which aims to reduce accidents, bullying, antisocial behaviour and crime levels among young people

A crash scene at at Radar, Northern Ireland's first interactive safety and life skills education centre at Sydenham Harbour Estate in Belfast Picture by Bill Smyth

SITTING behind the wheel of a car and waking up to find yourself on the opposite side the road with an articulated lorry heading straight for you is not something anyone wants to experience. Equally, seeing the aftermath of a fire caused by hair straighteners being left switched on sent shivers down my spine.

Thankfully both experiences didn't really happen to me – rather they were just two of the wake-up-calls awaiting young people visiting The Risk Awareness and Danger Avoidance Responsibility Centre (Radar).

Opening it's doors this week, the 1.8 million state-of-the-art interactive safety and life skills education centre, based in Belfast's harbour estate, is one of the most advanced of its kind in the UK and this year intends to welcome 36,000 young people between the ages of nine and 24 through its doors.

From road safety to accidents in the home, and from internet safety to mental health risks, Radar aims addresses the common problems which impact on the younger generation and result in thousands of deaths each year.

The 25,000sq ft facility centres around a life-size street scene where visitors navigate through a number of learning zones, each geared to reflect the dangers and challenges of everyday life. With a full size house, bus, train, shop, building society, police station, courtroom, park and farm shed, Radar addresses a range of risks, from crossing the road, or managing finances, to the consequences of antisocial behaviour.

“All too frequently we hear about deaths resulting from accidents which could have been avoided,” centre manager Sandra Leo says. “We believe that prevention is better than the cure so our whole focus at Radar is on helping children and young people keep themselves safe."

Former PSNI chief constable Sir Matt Baggott initiated the idea for Radar, having been involved in setting up a similar facility in Leicestershire. The annual bill to operate the centre is just under £500,000 and the PSNI has pledged to contribute around £160,000 per annum towards upkeep.

Additional funding was received from more than 50 public, private and community organisations, who will also contribute to delivering training and delivery of the safety messages.

“We place great emphasis on life skills,” Sandra says. “The hard hitting and realistic nature of our learning zones ensures young people leave with lasting messages about risk and its consequences.

"Some of these issues are difficult and sensitive and constantly moving. We aren't the experts in any of this, but we work with them and the information the young people receive is constantly up to date."

There are also contributions from parents who have lost their children and from the victims and perpetrators of crime. These include 33-year-old paraplegic Barry McGuigan from Armagh who talks to visitors about his regret of getting behind the wheel of his car eight years ago after drinking.

And 21-year-old David Chapman who spent time in prison for driving offences. "I don't want to see young people going down the road that I've been down, and maybe here can help them understand the reality of my experience," he says.

Now taking bookings from schools and community organisations, the centre's training sessions are tailored to the specific needs of each group.

They include a tour for P6 and P7 pupils exploring seven different areas and a tour for 14-to-16-year-olds which addresses life skills such as mental health, drug and alcohol awareness, diversity and online safety.

It is an unfortunate reality that when faced with a fire most people don't know how to react. Through the use of a smoke generator and the remains of a burnt out bedroom, young people are given a strong message about the causes of fire, the dangers of smoke and the importance of putting an action plan in place in case a fire occurs in their home.

"We can take on average four breaths of toxic smoke before we loose consciousness, but nine and 10-year-olds only have two breaths," Sandra says.

"Very often people charge their phone overnight and then stick it under their pillow, but when too much heat is generated it can cause a fire. It is hoped that the young people will understand how simple steps such as turning plugs off and not leaving electrical items switched on when leaving the house will help to prevent what could quickly escalate into a fatal situation."

With road deaths ever increasing, Radar hopes that young people will gain enough knowledge to feel and be safe while using Northern Ireland roads, and for new drivers, the centre has developed a specific young driver's course.

One of the many striking features of the centre is the car simulator, which allows young people to experience how dangerous drink or drug driving is, or driving while texting. It can also highlight the dangers of driving while tired and driving and stopping in various weather conditions and at various speeds.

"After they do this – they go out to the crash scene outside and what it's like at the scene of an accident. Then they go over to the courthouse where they actually meet young offenders from Hydebank Young Offenders Centre who talk about the mistakes they've made and talk about the realities of prison life," Sandra tells me.

While initially viewed as a safety education centre, it quickly became clear to Radar that they needed to address the increasing concerns of mental health among young people.

"To me the biggest risk to young people is mental health. Eight times the amount of people die from suicide in Northern Ireland on average than are killed on our roads. If you have young people who are content and secure in themselves, huge numbers of the other issues wouldn't be presenting. If you get someone at a young age who is starting to drink or take drugs who doesn't have that stable base within themselves, they are just so vulnerable and susceptible to danger," says Sandra.

As well as personal safety and identifying feelings with the younger visitors, older young people explore how to identify problems and how to ask for help. Included in this is money management and coping with debt. "We are very aware how financial stress is linked to mental health. We were recently told of a young lad from Lower Shankill who took his own life over £60 he owed," Sandra recalls.

Rather than just focusing on illegal drugs, Radar will discuss legal highs, tobacco and prescription drugs, and the fact that they to can be used and abused by empahasising their ill-effect on the body, rather than just giving the legal argument.

Beer goggles, which replicate what it feels like to have consumed a certain amount of units of alcohol, are used as a tool in teaching about alcohol abuse and antisocial behaviour. I wore a pair which simulated the effects on my vision of drinking four pints of beer – and I was shocked I couldn't even find Sandra's hand to shake.

"It's not about saying to young people 'Don't do...' It's about saying go out and enjoy yourself but manage the risks you are taking. Making better choices to start with gives you a better chance of getting home safely at the end of the night."

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