In November 2015, a few months after the present government took office, Road Safety Month was launched at which none other than the President of the Co-operative Republic gave the inaugural address. What the Head of State had to say was relevant and full of common sense, and it raised expectations among those sectors of the law-abiding public which have to get behind the wheel of a car every day, that the new administration would really give serious attention to the number of road accidents with which we are plagued.
President Granger covered all the bases – save one, perhaps, but we will return to that later. He spoke about re-engineering our infrastructure, pointing out that Guyana has public roads, not highways, and as a consequence most of them run through populated areas. He also emphasized that these should be free of encumbrances, such as derelict vehicles, vendors’ stands and animals, to name a few, while there should be sidewalks and pedestrian crossings and the like. He made mention of street lighting, and in an indirect appeal to the police force, said that traffic lights should be working, road marking should be visible and the traffic laws enforced.
For his part, Minister David Patterson made reference to the burgeoning number of vehicles, with little or no corresponding increase in road capacity.
Mr Frank Pompey, who was Chairman of the Guyana National Road Safety Council at the time, provided some of the grim figure work associated with our road safety record – if such it can be called – namely, 102 accidents and 117 deaths in 2012; 103 accidents and 122 fatalities in 2013; and 92 accidents with 111deaths in 2014.
And thereafter? At the Guyana Police Force year-end review at Eve Leary last December, Commissioner (ag) David Ramnarine said that in 2017, there were 100 accidents which had resulted in 115 deaths. This, he went on to say, was 17 accidents and 13 deaths fewer than what had been recorded in 2016. He appeared to attribute the ‘improvement’ to yet another of our interminable campaigns, this one called ‘Operation Safeway’ dating from 2016. According to our report, Ramnarine had told his audience there was great need for such a strategy owing to the increase in traffic accidents and fatalities at the time.
Clearly the comprehensive technical considerations of 2015 and Mr Ramnarine’s campaign, had not eventuated in the kind of dramatic reduction in road accidents all sane people were anticipating, even if, as the Commissioner (ag) was claiming, there had been a decrease. But then, there is one element in our traffic record officialdom really doesn’t like discussing, even though it exists, and which is therefore routinely omitted. That is the human element; in other words, our whole road culture, not excluding our minibus culture.
Senior officials will discuss certain aspects of it, such a driving under the influence of alcohol, and speeding whether drunk or not, but the whole gamut of characteristics they tend to avoid. It must be said, however, that our present road culture of everyone doing his or her own thing once they step into a vehicle, creating their own traffic rules, and being consistently discourteous or offensive to other drivers, only becomes possible with a police force – and in this case a traffic department – which is compromised. Once in a while, officialdom will raise the issue of the honesty of officers, but it is the general public which normally writes in to newspapers about the lack of integrity of some traffic officers, something that everyone beyond the boundaries of Police HQ knows only too well.
As far as the formal aspects of the problem are concerned, Commissioner (ag) Ramnarine said that out of 9,540 drivers who were breathalyzed last year, 3,461 were over the limit, which is something over a third of them, a very high proportion.
“Our analysis indicates that of the 115 deaths in 2017, 71 or 62% resulted from a combination of speeding, which resulted in 51 accidents; speeding and drunk driving, which accounted for 15 deaths and drunk driving alone, which caused five fatal accidents. Compared to 2016, there were 91 out of 128 deaths which were as a result of speeding, drunk driving and speeding with drunk driving,” Ramnarine was quoted as saying. Unfortunately, the orderly drivers on our roads were a great deal less impressed by his statistics than he was. They still went out the next morning to be cut off summarily by at least one minibus driver, and insulted for following the rules by any number of people in charge of a vehicle.
The discourteous behaviour of so many of Guyana’s drivers is replicated in many other departments of life, such as noise nuisance and myriad forms of anti-neighbourly behaviour. One has to suspect that the police themselves are not only not offended by noise nuisance, for example, but maybe even simply do not know what it is.
In the case of a minibus zooming past Guyana’s Finest blaring dancehall, one wonders, is it because it is the kind of music the police listen to themselves, that they see no problem with commuters in public transport being exposed to it no matter what the traffic rules say? Or is it that they cannot think the law would be so unreasonable as to ban speakers in buses? Or is it that in some cases – who knows how many – the police have simply been paid off?
If drivers’ behaviour is to be addressed, the police hierarchy and the Minister for Public Security – and indeed, the government as a whole – has to first address the question of the honesty of the police. What one wants to begin with is safe public transportation, and that will not come unless drivers are tested for being under the influence, or are charged with speeding, playing music through speakers in the bus, having slogans painted on the outside, overloading, etc, etc, on a consistent basis. Thereafter, one has to see a credible number of court appearances. Other countries in this region – Barbados comes easily to mind – do not have our disorderly roads, do not have our road culture, do not have our lawless minibus culture. We only have it because we have allowed it to flourish.
Every year the police and the ministry talk about education in terms of road safety. If they have done any recently it clearly hasn’t done any good. Perhaps they need to direct it in the right area. Mr Ramnarine last year told the media and others that the vulnerable age group was the drivers aged 25-33. However, that, one suspects, may be a less than important issue at this stage. In the current circumstances, the only thing which will start to change a road culture, whatever the age group involved, is enforcement of the laws.