Kill or be killed

Most of us come close to a life-changing tragedy every day: we are on the roads with motorized vehicles.

Jamaica has an awful record of road accidents, with figures running annually near 350, or about 15 deaths per 100,000 people. However, on a worldwide scale, these figures put Jamaica somewhere in the middle of the world (ranked 98th out of 192), with the highest being Namibia (53 per 100,000) and the lowest being Maldives (about 2).

Yesterday, I almost ran down a schoolboy. Ironically, I was on my way to the hospital. I was not driving very fast and the road was not busy or wet. I saw the boy on the street corner, looking to cross, and as I approached the corner, he stepped out, seeming to think I would turn ahead of him. Yikes! I slammed on the brakes just as he was in front of the car. “Sorry,” he said. Thank God, I thought.

When I got to the hospital, I met a family of a bike rider who had been hit by a car. He was in intensive care. They did not know how the accident had occurred, over the weekend, but were going to check with the police.

You often see the evidence of recent accidents on highways and they are often featured in the news, sometimes with very graphic details. I don’t know what constitutes enough advice, but a constant campaign is waged to inform people about better road safety practices. However, people tend to drive and ride motor vehicles fast here. Add to that roads with serious defects–pot holes, unevenness, debris, poor sign posting, etc. (I was driving slowly through a Kingston neighbourhood yesterday when I got to a crossroads and another approaching driver asked if I hadn’t seen the stop sign. I looked around and eventually saw it perched on a wall and covered with the branches of a tree.) Most roads are narrow, and some are very windy. My impression is that most major accidents occur on the straight strips when people think they have better chances of overtaking and bad judgements get made. Speed kills!

Taxi and minibus drivers push too hard on the road. Money! Time! Overcrowded!

I suspect that more deaths than necessary occur because assistance is inadequate. We know that there’s a shortage of ambulances and fire tenders.

Compared to practices in some other islands, drivers tend to wear seat belts, but I’ve often seen passengers without belts. Taxis, often overloaded, are great examples of that, with a back seat sometimes with five passengers and their bags all scrunched up together, plus two on a front seat, and the driver, one hand hanging out of the window with his money.

Most bike riders do not use helmets. Many of the helmets look like army surplus types. Helmets are often perched on a head, tilted back to accommodate a lot of hair (Rasta dreadlocks or braids) or some other headgear, like a baseball cap. Pillion passengers sometimes have helmets while the rider doesn’t. This was the sight yesterday with a schoolboy riding behind an adult. You’ll often see children being carried on a bicycle crossbar, maybe with book bag in lap, and father pedalling in tee shirt, shorts and sandals. After all, this is a tropical island, man.

Pedestrians line many roads and sidewalks are not always available. People saunter and sometimes walk carelessly into roads, like the schoolboy. Animals are often walking along roadways, especially in rural areas, but also in Kingston. Goats are ever present, but sometimes cows are around. Dogs and cats add to the menagerie.

Carelessness and inattentiveness must also play a part. Distracted driving may not be a major culprit, even though Jamaicans are deeply in love with their mobile phones. But, sometimes, there are too many things to watch for. I’ve been driving to the university a lot. Near the entrances, you have a set of signs with too much information about locations; you may read two items but not five or more. I sometimes pass a roundabout with about five exits, and I cannot read the destinations before I enter the circle. I have to make a turn on a road with a blind curve one way and an obstructed view the other. If I’m not very careful, I suddenly see a car approaching as I start to pull out. And so on.

I’m surprised that so few accidents occur when taxis are picking up or dropping off passengers, in their random fashion.

Clearly, the heavy costs of accidents haven’t sunk in. Jamaicans tend to regard life cheaply.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)