The horrendous minibus accident which occurred on Homestretch Avenue on Monday prodded the PPP into issuing one of their customary releases, in which drivers were urged to act more responsibly and commuters were exhorted to insist that drivers conduct themselves responsibly. It was an example of classic Freedom House evasion, which conveniently ignored the fact that the PPP was the party in government, and it was that government which was invested with the authority to ensure our roads were safe to travel on. One can only marvel at the process by which they concluded that the onus for this could be shunted onto the hapless commuters, or that errant minibus drivers could be persuaded to amend their reckless ways once an admonition in the form of a press statement had been dispatched to all the media houses.
There are, of course, infinitely more vehicles of all kinds on the roads than there were when the PPP/C came to office in 1992, and so statistically speaking, one should expect more accidents in terms of absolute numbers, although there should not have been the disproportionate increase that we have seen. It is true that the government has rehabilitated many of the roads in their nineteen years in power, but it is perhaps a moot point as to whether this has actually enhanced safety; it may be that it has just provided better surfaces for the speed obsessed to conduct their races.
The traffic lights which were installed in 2007 were a huge advance, although maintaining them in the face of vandalism and drivers who lack a sense of direction has proved something of a challenge. However, they have brought a measure of order to the streets where they are located, and one can only regret that it took World Cup Cricket to galvanise the authorities into action. But while there are traffic lights, there are other things which have not been done. Signs of all kinds are lacking, for instance, and if you are a stranger you have to intuit which is a one-way street, while the dividing lines painted on some of the larger highways have faded away in the noonday sun.
In a developed country drivers tend to focus on what is up ahead, but here danger lurks on either side of the road in the form of cyclists, animals or pedestrians. In fact, pedestrians are the nation’s most vulnerable road users for the simple reason there are hardly any pavements where they can walk safely, and they are forced to compete for road space with the traffic. On a rainy day they can be found sometimes far out in the roadway in an attempt to avoid the pools of water which have collected at the edges. In addition, of course, our streets tend to be narrow, which adds to the difficulties for drivers and pedestrians, although it has to be conceded that wide roads are no guarantee that pedestrians will not be struck down, as has happened on Sheriff Street, for example, all too frequently.
The main cause of accidents as has been acknowledged by the police and as was said in our editorial on Wednesday, is speeding, often fuelled by alcohol and sometimes, drugs. Letter-writers in the past have suggested introducing new legislation, or increasing the penalties for traffic breaches, but the truth of the matter is that we already have laws on the statute books which could potentially bring some order on the roads. We have, for example, a law about loud music in vehicles, but some of the minibuses still play loud music; we have a law about driving while under the influence of alcohol or any psychotropic substance, but too many drivers still get behind the wheel when they have been drinking; and we most certainly have laws about speeding, but minibuses, private vehicles and motor bikes still speed on a routine basis. The problem, as was also said in our Wednesday editorial, is one of enforcement of the laws. New legislation, therefore, while probably desirable, will make absolutely no difference to the situation if not enforced.
In the case of the minibuses, of course, there is a minibus culture which it will be difficult for the authorities to control – difficult, it must be said, but not impossible. Part of it simply relates to the competition for passengers and the obsession to get to a destination as fast as possible so more trips can be crammed in during a working day and more money can thereby be made. For the same reason cramming as many passengers as possible into a bus has also become the norm. However, aggressive driving, competition and speed eventually become ends in themselves, especially for drivers who are young, which many of them are.
They do, however, have a clannish instinct, signalling each other with their headlights when one of them has spotted an officer with a radar gun, for example. In the past it was not unknown either for them to ask some passengers to disembark and wait around a corner to be picked up again, if they spied a policeman stopping buses to check for ‘overload.’
It has to be recognized that even if all things were equal, the Traffic Department probably does not have enough officers at its disposal to police our roads at the level at which it should ideally be done; the Guyana Police Force is known to be under strength, and one must presume, therefore, that Traffic suffers from depleted ranks in the same way as other sectors of the force. That is not, however, the whole story. The main reason for the lack of enforcement of the traffic code is simply that the minibus culture dovetails into the police culture.
The police are notoriously underpaid, causing their members to seek other ways of supplementing their income and making the temptation of even a modest bribe hard to resist. It has been alleged that quite a number of officers are the owners of minibuses, while others moonlight as drivers after hours. No one knows precisely how many members of the force are involved in public sector transportation in one form or another, but the inhibiting effect that this has on the capacity of the police to rein in the minibus drivers cannot be underestimated.
Then there is the culture of the ‘raise,’ which has been honed to a fine art in the Traffic section. It affects enforcement at different levels. First there is the driver’s licence, which has been bought in some instances; then there is the ‘fitness’ document certifying the vehicle is roadworthy, and which can, no doubt, also be obtained by underhand means; and finally there is the interaction with the individual officer when an offence is committed, leaving space too for the payment of a bribe.
Many Guyanese at one time or another have seen the police themselves driving irresponsibly, and one wonders sometimes about the youth, inexperience and educational background of some of the present-day recruits into the force; as said above, the salary in and of itself is not designed to attract an ambitious school leaver with CXCs. Certainly these disadvantages might affect the judgement of some ranks.
In fairness to the police, the general culture has had deleterious effects on their ability to enforce the rules without fear or favour. The GPF’s professionalism has been seriously undermined by political forces of one kind or another over the years, and some of those with connections do not hesitate to exert pressure on the police in an accident involving, say, one of their relatives. The larger culture has probably had its effect in other ways too. One cannot help but wonder whether some police officers cannot confront noise nuisance (vehicular and otherwise) because they cannot recognize it for what it is when they hear it; it is part and parcel of the general environment in which they have grown up. Then there is the drinking culture of this society, which means that only those who cause a serious accident are ever likely to be tested for the alcohol levels in their blood. Are police officers themselves abstemious off duty if they know they will be driving, one wonders?
Unless the government is prepared to deal with the matter of salaries for police officers, work to restore the professionalism of the force and draft a plan to eliminate corruption, we may not be able to make much headway in reducing the road accident figures dramatically.