One of the shocks for people new to Guyana is the frenetic driving behaviours on our roads – drivers cutting in and out of traffic; driving in the opposing lane to get ahead of traffic; obviously intoxicated drivers; ignoring stop signs; running red lights – the list goes on. Ultimately, the biggest obvious danger is the excessively high speed we see from cars, motorbikes, and even heavy-duty trucks. I frequently hear the comments about “these speeders” as if we’re talking about a select few, but in fact speeding in Guyana is a rampant and ever-present condition.
Without exception, any time I leave my house to venture into town or east to Plaisance I see persons driving way over the speed limit and honking at any drivers who may be slowing their rush; I emphasize, not every now and then, not every other time, it’s every time. Speeding is not an isolated or an occasional occurrence; it is happening every day right across the country. Indeed, based on my personal experience with this mania for speed I am frankly surprised that more people are not killed every day.
Erratic driving – overtaking blind; cutting across lanes; turning without signalling; overtaking on the inside lane ‒ has simply become the norm in Guyana. Excessively high-speed driving is accepted, sometimes even applauded. Mini-bus drivers will attest to passengers egging them to speed up so they can get home fast.
One frequently hears these astonishing conversations of males around a bar with the topic being a driver careening around the highway at high speed and the driver himself being held up as a hero of some sorts. “Budday, da man can handle a cyar.”
Why are we expressing admiration for a behaviour that causes unimaginable pain and suffering, and even loss of life, on innocent people in our country, week after week? The incidents involving very young people, whose lives are snuffed out in an instant by either drunken or reckless driving, are especially horrifying. What is there in this kind of egregious display that seems to shock us at the moment but leaves us two days later lauding someone we know for their inclination to drive at dangerous speeds? Friends or relatives or not, It is time we see these persons for what they are – negligent and thoughtless individuals who are self-absorbed to the point of causing an innocent person’s death by their callousness. Apart from a couple of blogs in the media, why does our society take such a benign attitude to these renegades?
The reality, for those of us either inside a vehicle or walking the street, motorists speeding has become part of our way of life, and although there are concerns in the press expressed occasionally, we can’t seem to get it under control.
Integral to the problem of course is enforcement in the poor country scenario. A policeman posted at a traffic junction, watching for those running a red light is a common sight in North America, but we don’t have the economic means to mount that exercise here on an effective scale so that drivers will routinely come to a red light in light traffic and drive on through. Also, on the correction effort, it is worth noting that the police statistics reveal that the largest number of cases involving infractions on the road are those to do with speeding, so many of the speeders are being caught, but the practice continues.
Part of the problem is certainly the increased number of cars on the road these days, many of them super-powered, and the resulting traffic congestion is leading frustrated drivers to avert delays by simply powering around other vehicles. Also, the incidence of speeding suggests that the fines are not high enough and are not serving as the deterrent they should be. Guyanese drivers in the diaspora are quick to point out how quickly they end up in court, or restricted from driving, when they exceed speed limits.
At home, the deterrents need to be ramped up. Few persons appear to give a thought to the “Slow Down and Live” billboards, but when a motorist is grounded by a 6-month driving suspension, the message will hit home.
I have had this column halfway written for weeks; here’s what pushed me to finish it. Since moving back here, I have developed a practice, while driving, of checking four-way junctions for traffic before moving through. I do it even if there are stop signs to my right or left. Last week, I’m driving east on Alexander Street, a one-way with several cross streets, and as I approach a junction, I came off the gas and glanced to my left – no traffic. As I’m turning back to look right, I heard a noise and instinctively hit the brake.
As I did so, a panel truck at high speed came barrelling through, ignoring the stop sign on his side, and passed within two feet of my front bumper. He never slowed up, never blew his horn, and didn’t pause as he flew by.
If I had come to that intersection two seconds earlier, that truck, doing at least 40 mph, would have smashed into me on the driver’s side, hitting me where I sat. I would have been killed or seriously maimed in an instant.
I sat in the car shaking after my narrow escape. My personal experience with that driver’s behaviour brought home to me how easily the life of someone, driving cautiously, or walking, can be lost in an instant on our roads. Just from reading the news, without doing any research, it is clear that this problem is worsening instead of getting better.
Nothing better demonstrates Guyanese descent into lawlessness and disregard of concern for others than our daily behaviours on the roadways of our country.
More cars on the roads, many of them high-powered, the increased congestion of traffic, and the prevalence now of mankind in a hurry, suggests that our traffic laws need to be ramped up. Among other things, we should introduce 6-month licence suspension for the first-offender DUI, and 2-year driving bans for repeat impaired offences.
The fines for traffic infractions should be substantially increased, and we should introduce a demerit system for driver’s licences for each offence with automatic suspension when a certain point deduction total is reached.
We should also introduce the Canadian system where someone guilty of a DUI offence has a blow-in device installed on his/her car’s ignition which would immobilize the vehicle if the driver is impaired, day or night, anywhere.
Alternatively, we can leave things as they now stand, but all that means is that the horror of these traffic deaths – a recent one involved the instant death of a 4-year-old pedestrian – will continue. In the meantime, don’t assume that drivers will automatically stop for a red light or a side-street stop sign – it could save your life.