In last Sunday’s column “How Come” I wrote about a young man in my family who was travelling as a passenger in a car recently that was hit by a speeding vehicle, driven by someone under the influence, in the kind of lunatic driving that is routine in Guyana. I commented: “Fortunately, he was unharmed, but questions linger. In choosing to run a red light or to drive through a stop-sign from a side street at high speed, we are risking possible death or dismemberment to innocent people in our path and to ourselves. How come we still do it?”
One week to the day after I wrote that, I am reading online an item in the Trinidad Express that caught my eye because of the headline which said: “Lifetime Ban for Drunk Driving Mechanic”. The story tells us that a mechanic by the name of Wazir Ramjohn will never legally drive again because he was permanently disqualified from driving after he appeared in court on his third charge of being behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol. The article said: “Ramjohn, 52 of Marabella, blamed his actions of driving while drunk on Easter Sunday –April 16 – on the anniversary of the death of his son. The magistrate however told him if he got relief from drinking he should not drive. Ramjohn’s son died two years ago on April 13. His cause of his death was not mentioned in court.
‘He took it on and has been drinking again … he needs help holistically,’ defence attorney Sharmilla Rampaul said and stated her client needed to be rehabilitated and counselled. Rampaul asked that he be spared a jail term although San Fernando Traffic Court magistrate Natalie Diop said the law allowed for such. Rampaul told the court her client had two previous convictions of a similar nature. Diop said the police’s information showed matters in 2010 and 2014 were pending, and she called on the police officers to ensure their records are updated. In this newest incident, Ramjohn admitted to the police that he had been drinking. Magistrate Diop told Ramjohn that the accident and his two convictions were aggravating factors. She also said, ‘No matter how you feel, your personal circumstance, if drinking brings you relief and you opt to do so, you must not be on the road … You have been before the court on three occasions … The court has to send a clear message; this conduct will not be tolerated.’ She fined Ramjohn $15,000 and also told him that on a third conviction the law states there has to be a permanent disqualification from holding or obtaining a driver’s permit. Ramjohn’s permit was forfeited and ordered returned to the Licencing Authority.”
I am quoting this here in its entirety because the actions by the Magistrate in that Trinidad case struck me as something we need to embrace in our country, where the deaths and disfigurements on our road, by impaired or erratic drivers, continue to assail us virtually on a daily basis. It is now going on nine years since I returned to live in Guyana, and among the things that astonish me this issue of utterly irresponsible driving is high on the list. While shortages of Police manpower to control traffic is probably a factor, recent Police statistics indicate that many errant drivers are being caught and prosecuted but the scale, and particularly, the continuance of the road madness suggests more severe penalties should be applied.
I know enough about the culture I come from to know that a man’s ability to “hold his liquor” is silently admired, if not openly applauded, at many levels of our society. Indeed, on several occasions I have heard grown men, of reputable standing, actually expressing admiration for an acquaintance who drove home very intoxicated from a night of boozing. “I don’t know how he got home; that man is amazing.” It is an astonishing position for clear thinking persons to take, but we take it all the time, and it is time for us to accept that that that twisted approach needs to be abandoned. I can say with no fear of contradiction that drunk driving, and its first cousin, highly irresponsible driving, takes place in Guyana every day. I see examples of it virtually every time I’m on the road to or from town. The tragedy is that the consequences are often not restricted to the person behind the wheel. Often, as we have seen recently, it’s an innocent child waiting on a parapet to cross the road, or a passenger in another vehicle, being driven responsibly, who ends up on a slab in the morgue. Appeals from the Police and from concerned citizens are not making a dent in the problem.
It is clearly time to embrace the approach delivered by Magistrate Diop in Trinidad, where, if we notice, nobody was injured, but there was official recognition of the possibility to take innocent lives and to therefore impose severe penalties on the transgressor. We have to act here as the Magistrate said in Trinidad: “If drinking brings you relief and you opt to do so, you must not be on the road. The court has to send a clear message; this conduct will not be tolerated.” We must do likewise here; make the current penalties more severe, and work to remove the possibility of the guilty bribing their way clear. I cannot recall one instance of a drunk driver here being banned for life. Let us try the Magistrate Diop approach; at the very least it will take some persons off the road who truly should not be given a licence to drive, no matter how macho their friends may see them.
Wazir Ramjohn has been banned from driving for life in Trinidad; we should be banning persons similarly here, as well.