Accidents will happen?

My mind has been bothered by road safety issues in Jamaica for a while. I noticed headlines last week that showed an increase in road traffic deaths in 2014 over 2013 (12 to 10, as of mid-January). What struck me was a certain steadiness in the figure, despite official desires for the number to be lower (240 was the target last year, and the total was 304). car accidentJamaica’s road infrastructure, car ownership and daily activity patterns don’t change that much, so it would seem a difficult thing to see the number of accidents fall dramatically. That would imply a need for some major change in what goes on regularly in the island.

On any given day, we can see many forms of risky behaviour on the road. I’ll list a few activities I saw over the past few days just from random observations, with the regret that I could not take a picture of them all.

  • Boy (about 12 years old) standing on window frame of SUV, so that he was outside the vehicle as it was being driven by a much older man
  • Man riding motor cycle, clad in vest and baseball cap
  • Couple on motor cycle, with driver wearing helmet, while passenger wore swim suit and no helmet
  • Taxi overloaded: driver with no seat belt; passengers without seat belts; children on laps; children in front of vehicle
  • Driver with child on lap; neither strapped in
  • People running across busy roads without using designated crossings
  • Groups of school children running across roads in front of school to catch public bus; trying to urge oncoming traffic to stop
  • Vehicles stopping to let out passengers, without signalling or with little regard to position on road (sometimes blocking sight lines for passing or oncoming traffic)
  • Children playing on sidewalk, with no regard for fact that they were occasionally dashing into the road
  • Goats crossing a busy road

This is daily life on this little island.

What struck me about what I witnessed was that many of these apparently risky activities are not in play when accidents happen or lives are lost.

Few accidents happen during the heavily congested periods of rush hour. Vehicles can only move at relatively slow speeds. High speed is a major contributor to accidents. Traffic jams help.

Many, if not most, accidents in Jamaica occur because of speeding vehicles that run out of control and collide with other vehicles or pedestrians. ‘Overtaking truck collides with minibus, would be a familiar incident’.

We know that many deaths occur because a victim is unprotected, but the victims are not always the driver/rider or passenger, but a pedestrian. Safety belts would help some, but have also not helped victims in some instances (see testimonial).

Most traffic victims are young male drivers and pedestrians (30 percent of all fatalities)–of which, many are children.

Police department data (used in the Highway 2000 study) on causes of road accidents showed the following:

  • Error of Judgement/Negligence (15%)
  • Improper Overtaking (9%)
  • Following Too Closely (9%)
  • Turning without Due Care (8%)
  • Crossing Heedlessly (8%)
  • Losing control & excessive speed (7% each)

We could call that ‘bad driving’ in most cases. The impact of poor road conditions, or weather does not factor in that highly.

Education and signposts are important parts of the official fight against the number of road accidents. But, as my list above showed, what people need to learn goes to the core of how they see the life they lead.

Safety tips are clear and they have a good history of helping to reduce accidents. But, for all the signs about wearing helmets and buckling up, we have a nation that tends to not bother with that stuff. That has to change. We’re good at wailing about the deaths, but seem to be slow to take to heart the lessons. It’s interesting that the practices are as blatantly bad in so-called ‘upscale areas’ as in so-called poorer areas. It’s a national problem.

Pedestrian crossings are lacking and need to be increased. Proposals exist to increase these around schools. That said, wherever you see crossings, you’ll also see people crossing anyway they wish.

We have a society that is very lax when accepting rules. As regards road use, this has some serious consequences:

The notion of drinking and not driving is not one that people take that seriously. That said, official data show only 1 percent of accidents were due to driving under the influence (and we should include drugs).

As already noted, seat belt use is not seen as a must. Even scarier, is the fact that people seem to think that babies and young children can miraculously save themselves in accidents, so are often unharnessed in cars.

Head safety gear is not seen as a must by many riders. Some wear head-gear that is just impromptu or not really on the head as protection–the funniest I’ve seen is the Rasta with a helmet perched on his tam, like a football. Jah live!

But, we also have to understand that we have a society that lacks many of the support elements that go with a relatively high level of car ownership per capita (Jamaica ranks 73rd of 166 countries).

Many roads are single lane, raising risks that come with the need to overtake and judging that at speed. Highway 2000 should have reduced the frequency of accidents as it reduced the amount of traffic sharing road space with pedestrians and provided separate lanes in which traffic flows in opposite directions. But, the island is not filled with four-lane highways.

The island does not have enough overheard crossings to help people where communities have been cut in two by road developments–some are there, but not enough. People love short cuts and also love to do what they’ve done in the past.

Although Jamaica has terrible road conditions, bad roads are not often the proximate cause of most accidents. Jamaica has many hilly or mountainous roads, but they are not often the location of bad accidents. Bad or difficult road conditions tend to result in relatively more care and lower driving speed.

But, improving surface roads could reduce many accidents, at about the same rate as widening roads.

In rural areas, roads often lack sidewalks. In urban areas, more sidewalks exist, but many areas are without. So, people and car often mix in a lethal way. People walk a great deal and pedestrian interaction with traffic is high.

Jamaicans love to talk and text on cell phones while driving. Although data do not show this to be a proximate cause in many accidents, new legislation is proposed to deal with that. It’s part of a pattern of lax behaviour.

Whatever is being done in schools or workplaces is not enough to change what people do as a matter of routine. Whatever adverts are made to instruct are not having enough impact on what people do. Whenever transgressions occur, it is too easy for them to be ignored by police. What would one expect from a force that includes motorbike officers who use their phones while riding?

Our roads are dangerous. On top of the deaths, we have a large number of injuries– aAbout 2000.

Like the high number of murders, we are in danger of seeing the road accidents as part of an intractable problem that defies solution. However, unlike crime, I think what people need to do to overcome this problem is far simpler.

Those people who jump into their cars and just let themselves and their children ride along without belts need to understand what they are doing by not taking the simple safety step. It goes the same way with driving, though, it’s harder to judge what bad decisions are being taken as people hurry (needlessly, in many cases) to their destinations.

I’m sensitive to the messages, but are most people totally untouched? The carnage has become common place. It’s too easy to think that it wont happen. That action needed is personal, but as with many things about behaviour, it often takes a personal tragedy to force people to change. But, that’s always an expensive way to learn.

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. :)