The Road Safety Problem: Are We Missing Something?

July 23rd, 2019

It’s always interesting, when you have visitors, to see aspects of Jamaica through their eyes – whether negative or positive. So when a recent friend observed that, having come to Jamaica, she is more afraid of the mayhem on our roads than crime, I quietly agreed. Not that we don’t have a crime problem too. But as you strap your seatbelt on and settle into your vehicle, do you sometimes wonder if you will safely reach your destination?

Our friend from overseas began counting the moments when a car was heading straight for us, forcing us to take speedy evasive action to avoid a head-on collision. There were several such jaw-dropping moments in a single week.

On Father’s Day morning this year, there was a seven-vehicle accident at an intersection in Kingston, involving one crazy speeding driver and six vehicles waiting at the traffic light. Frustrated drivers, dents, scratches, and two people seriously injured were the result, early on a Sunday morning. In the afternoon, a crash on the narrow main road in Rozelle, St. Thomas (ten people in the back of a pick-up truck) resulted in one woman killed and several injured. The truck ended up on the rocks, almost in the sea.

Graphic from the National Road Safety Council on Twitter.

Graphic from the National Road Safety Council on Twitter.

This week, an accident on the Orange Bay main road in Portland resulted in the death of a motorcyclist, who was not wearing a helmet. He was flung many yards through the air before landing on the roadside, after an encounter with a car.

What the media calls “traffic woes” moves right along, relentlessly. As of July 23, 252 Jamaicans have died on our roads, whether motorists, pedestrians or motorcyclists. This is around 25 percent more deaths than in 2018. The number of injuries seems to be less clear. There is a Twitter account, rather poignantly called @below300ja – that is, the hope that we will stay below 300 deaths this year. This seems so unlikely that perhaps they had better delete this Twitter account, from now.

Tragic as it is that hundreds have already lost their lives in a few short months, perhaps in a minute or two of madness and careless inattention – we must not forget the thousands of injuries every year. Road deaths are one thing, but the suffering and grief, the years of pain and disability, are not to be discounted either. Not to mention the cost in dollar terms, both to the individual and to the country’s health system (I think it runs at about J$2 billion per year, but that is probably a conservative estimate).

We literally cannot afford for this to continue.

National Security Minister Horace Chang and Opposition Security Spokesman Fitz Jackson inspect some "high-vis" green PSTEB members on August 29, 2018. (Photo: Michael Sloley)

National Security Minister Horace Chang and Opposition Security Spokesman Fitz Jackson inspect some “high-vis” green PSTEB members on August 29, 2018. (Photo: Michael Sloley)

I do not believe it is simply a matter of enforcement, as many would say. Yes, “PSTEB” – launched almost a year ago now – with its luminous vests has been rather a flop. I can’t remember what the acronym stands for, anymore. Yes, police on the street (when they are there) often ignore flagrant road code violations taking place before their very eyes. A motorbike rider sans helmet will waltz by, without being stopped. A taxi will overtake a line of traffic with impunity. A car passes with a young child (even a baby) in the front seat – not in a baby seat or any kind of restraint. Is it surprising that children are so often victims? We all see these practices, every single day.

But let us keep in mind that our police force is woefully short of manpower (I wonder how their recruitment drive went, over the weekend?) and that there are still police officers who own taxis (this should be banned) and engage in illegal activities. In other words, corruption. There are many contributing factors. Law enforcement is one area where we are falling short, but not the only one.

Sergeant Leroy Christopher of the Jamaica Constabulary Force's Traffic and Highway Patrol Division administers an alcohol-level test to a private citizen during a demonstration at the Elletson Road Police Station in Kingston in 2008. - Gleaner file photo.

Sergeant Leroy Christopher of the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s Traffic and Highway Patrol Division administers an alcohol-level test to a private citizen during a demonstration at the Elletson Road Police Station in Kingston in 2008. – Gleaner file photo.

Our road safety issues are also health issues, including our mental health; and socio-cultural issues. Who is researching this, I wonder? We need to do more than trot out the depressing numbers once a week or so, and wring our hands, and talk about “indiscipline” and “lawlessness.” What is behind this? Are motorists driving under the influence of alcohol and/or ganja and if so, how does this affect their driving? What does the research say on this, if there is any? What about distracted driving and the use of cell phones – do we know how many accidents are caused by this?

Our Prime Minister Andrew Holness chairs the National Road Safety Council (NRSC). At the moment, however, he seems more concerned about the inconvenience caused to motorists by the over-ambitious road works taking place in Kingston than he is about the daily carnage on our roads. How often does the NRSC meet, and does it make its decisions and actions public, at all?

The Transport Minister made an announcement two months ago that there will be video surveillance of unruly drivers. He also said that taxi drivers are to be trained. All this is going to happen “soon.” Consultations with stakeholders on a new Transport Policy reportedly took place earlier this year.

So, what is missing? Political will. Leadership. Genuine caring for the lives of fellow Jamaicans. And understanding.

Let’s take some bold action. The Road Traffic Act is there. Let’s use it thoroughly and effectively. Lives are at stake.

 

 

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