Jamaican drivers would be described by many foreigners as ‘reckelss’, ‘dangerous’, ‘Kamikaze’, ‘suicidal’, etc. In other words, when in their presence on a road, you’re taking your life in your hands or better put, you’re putting your life at stake by taking to the roads. Trouble is, you have few alternatives for getting around the island.
Drivers would argue that they take calculated risks, and so accidents will happen. To add to the speed at which people travel in motorized vehicles, you have to add that many people are also using their cell phones. Road accidents take an horrific toll in lives here, and while cell phone use may not be a major culprit, it’s notable the the government is planning to ban cell phone use while driving.
Legislation has been discussed for several years and is still to be enacted to ban cell phone use and impose large fines for transgressing. This would be under a new Road Traffic Act, the last one dating from 2004.
During the three months since I arrived I’ve seen some stunning examples of phone use while driving, or riding.
*Policeman riding his motorbike with no hands and texting 😮
*Woman driving with both hands on steering wheel but cell phone poised so that she could look at screen while steering.
*Many instances of one-handed driving or riding, with cell phone propped on shoulder and ear, while chatting.
Admittedly, none of these drivers or riders appeared to be driving very badly. I’ve not yet encountered a speeding driver who was also using a cell phone. On the contrary, I’ve often noted the use with the abnormal slowness of the vehicle, perhaps getting key instructions about directions or the last moments of a TV soap opera. That beats the random stopping midway in a road when a driver decides to let out a passenger or pick someone up.
As has been the case in the USA, drivers who are accustomed to certain ways of driving may have a hard time making the change. People habitually use their phones while driving here, and it’s not yet illegal. I see little sign that drivers are weaning themselves off phones.
I’m often calling friends and they answer saying “I’m on my way to…with the kids…” I usually suggest calling back when they’ve reached their destination, but often get “No, man, mi cyan talk.” I’ve still hung onto my modified US behavior, of not answering while driving. I end many of my road trips with missed calls, not that I get many. Or, I check calls when I make a stop for gas or food. If I have a passenger their role is to handle my phone calls or messages: my little daughter knows this well.
But, it’s part of a laissez-faire attitude that may make road use much more dangerous than it needs to be. Data released by the National Road Safety Council indicate that between January 1 and August 27, 2012 in comparison to the same period in 2013, road fatalities have increased from 170 to 194, while crashes have jumped from 148 to 173. These figures represent a 14 per cent and 17 per cent hike in road deaths and road crashes, respectively. The nation has a target to reduce road deaths to 240 within three years.
During 2012, Jamaica recorded 260 road fatalities. This was the first time in 13 years, and the first time since the launch of the four-year-old ‘Save 300 Lives’ campaign that fewer than 300 persons died on the roads. From what I’ve seen and read, most accidents result from speeding, but are made worse by overcrowding vehicles, poor maintenance of vehicles, and poor road conditions, either due to weather or damaged surfaces.
I’ve seen the results of one major road accident every week I’ve been here so far. In addition, I’ve read, or heard, about at least one accident on a stretch of highway on which I was driving within 24 hours of my being on that stretch. That’s a bit unnerving. I drive with care, I think, but I am also adjusting how I drive and am driving faster and taking more risks than I used to. But, road conditions are different and require different tactics. I know that behind a lot of the speeding and overtaking is the frustration that comes from being saddled with an limited road network and its restrictions on how quickly journeys can be made.