Police reforms needed to rein in traffic chaos

In the United States of America (USA), the term “vehicular homicide” is used to describe the criminally negligent or murderous operation of a motor vehicle which results in the death of someone other than the driver of the said vehicle. A “homicide” is the act of one person killing another, and in Guyana, the blander “causing death by dangerous driving” was the charge applied to a mini-bus driver whose vehicle was said to be “flying like a plane” shortly before careening into the median and toppling several times resulting in the deaths of two women.

To see mini-buses being driven in a reckless manner and at high speed is no rare sight at all, and “flying like a plane” is indeed an apt description of the way many such vehicles are operated all across Guyana. Many passengers endure the hair-raising ride each day simply because they have no alternatives – the mini-bus represents the most affordable mode of transportation to the general public here. It is also a well-known fact that protestations from passengers, be they old or young, are usually greeted with scornful rebukes from drivers, conductors and even some passengers themselves.

Travelling in a mini-bus in Guyana, even on a short trip, is a relatively harrowing experience that most would prefer to avoid, and longer journeys are obviously much more frightening. Whether the incessant pounding of loud music numbs the mind to the speed, or exacerbates it, must vary from person to person, but the regular overcrowding of the buses certainly increases the risk of serious injury if an accident occurs. Over the years, the public outcry at the carnage caused by reckless, speeding drivers on our roadways has largely fell on deaf ears, as the mainly knee-jerk responses by the Traffic Department of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) were usually poorly conceived and ineffectual.

Over the years the GPF have adopted an approach of shortsighted and short-lived “campaigns” against various perceived road safety violations of the public. Just last November, the National Road Safety Council in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Infrastructure (MoPI), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Impressions, and the GPF, launched what would be the GPF’s latest campaign entitled “Stop the Tears” which is intended to raise public awareness of road safety issues. As well-intentioned and necessary as this campaign is, the GPF’s involvement must not be a substitute for its own sensible, pragmatic execution of its own mandate to police the roadways and enforce compliance with existing laws. The GPF can take no solace in this or any other well-meaning efforts of civil society and various agencies to arrest the continuous descent into anarchy on our roadways.

 And there is no need for the reinvention of the wheel in addressing the issue of road safety and unnecessary deaths of scores of Guyanese each year by traffic accidents, all that is missing is the commitment of the GPF to carry out its mandate in a professional manner. The GPF must also sustain this effort as an integral part of its day to day operations and not view this as a “campaign” designed to net a certain number of perpetrators, passing them through our inefficient court system leading to undetermined and indeterminable results many years from now. The GPF’s efforts to reduce traffic offences must be based on the concept that “prevention is better than cure,” and by the professional and fastidious execution of their duties, demonstrating competence and knowledge of the road traffic laws and regulations, bring about the desired change in the behaviour of road users.

But it is difficult to envision such a Police Traffic Department when currently, ranks of the GPF itself have been known to drive recklessly,  several having been involved in fatal accidents. Clearly then, the GPF has got to get its own house in order in more ways than one, particularly with respect to the compliance of its own ranks and officers with the road traffic regulations. Additionally, traffic control officers must be subjected to rigorous training and must demonstrate adequate knowledge of our traffic laws and regulations and the rights of road users. The now infamous exchange between a traffic policeman and a practising attorney-at-law was, perhaps, a teachable moment, indicating the need for the GPF to train its officers beyond a cursory knowledge and basic application of traffic laws and regulations. Whether or not the attorney’s invective-laced assertions were legally sound, it clearly gave the traffic officer pause, “putting him on the backfoot” as it were (to use a cricketing aphorism).

Once the traffic control officers are well trained, knowledgeable about the laws and regulations and exercise awareness and respect for the rights of road users, then such a dramatic turnaround by the GPF is bound to set the stage for the equally dramatic change needed in the behaviour of road users of all classes, but particularly drivers.

It stands to reason that if traffic policemen execute their duties professionally, the well-known practice of bullying drivers into paying an unofficial “fine” or giving a “raise” must come to an end. Policemen who own vehicles including mini-buses must also be faced with the same consequences as regular citizens when they run afoul of the traffic laws. Physical traffic controls including medians and roundabouts must also be utilised to create a smooth flow of traffic and reduce congestion.

In the meantime, while we wait on these welcome but seemingly unattainable idealistic outcomes (given the overall culture of lawlessness prevailing in Guyana) it is good to see that drivers are being made legally responsible for the deaths that they cause by reckless driving. This fact should be well publicised by the National Road Safety Council in its public awareness campaign. Finally, all mini-bus drivers caught “flying like a plane” should have their licences to operate public transportation vehicles immediately revoked.

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