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I think the whole debate and ‘strategy’ over road traffic deaths is confused. If we are to believe that the trend line is falling (and it would have been nice for a graph to show us that), why are we then focusing on the blips (up in the 1st quarter), and what is the point of targeting a number like 240, which suggests some end point level? Are we hoping that we will stabilize at that level into the foreseeable future? That’s a basic question I ask after reading an article in the Sunday Gleaner, headlined “First quarter deaths up”.

I’ve asked on several occasions and not yet seen answers about how road deaths in Jamaica compare with some metrics, like per road mile, per vehicle owned, etc. The deaths are not happening in a vacuum, yet the standard commentary has no context. My own quick research on the Internet gave me some indicators based on World Health Organization data, and reproduced on Wikipedia. They show that Jamaica has about 12 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Compare that with a world average of 18 (2/3 of world average); we are well below international average. That’s not trivial. Jamaica has about 65 road traffic deaths per 100,000 vehicles, about 2/3 of the world average of 93; again, not trivial. A deeper analysis would try to look at what has happened over time, for example, how Jamaica compares at its stage of development with other countries at a similar stage. We don’t have that data. But, we can also look at places we regard as safe, say the UK (3 and 5, for the two measures), or places we associate with traffic chaos, like Nigeria (33 and 1042). We should not gloat that our numbers are well below average, but we should also understand that the raw numbers, raw though they may be on our emotions, can be understood differently.

People are getting killed by cars driving fast and hitting them, or by their dying from injuries as passengers. We cannot target a number for that. We can provide the means for that number to be low, or do nothing and let the numbers move as they will. I do not have all the answers, but some things seem clear options:

  • We can educate people (Jamaicans still seem bewildered by what cars do at speed and when close to people). But, even ‘intelligent’ Jamaicans do rather unintelligent things: look at the so-called educated people who let their children drive in cars without seat belts on their way to their places of education. Show me the safe crossing places along Kingston’s Washington Boulevard (which has substantial commercial and residential development on both sides). Tell me what you expect people to do to deal with their need to traverse this highway. Tell me what you see. What do you think the consequences are likely to be? It’s not really a hard problem to analyse. Correcting it, though, is a big challenge.
  • We can add and improve infrastructure (better roads, more signs to control speed, more places for people to cross safely, provide speed curbing surfaces, etc.). In some areas, people have given up on government and started to do what they see as needed: I’ve seen improvised road crossing markings, and some speed ‘bumps’ made of rocks and cement blocks. Not safe, but indicative that people want to control a problem.
  • We can advise people of rules clearly and often. Last week CVMTV’s ‘Live at 7’ discussed the paucity of road signs and it was really revealing how those charged with the installation seemed to be ‘working, working, working’. Not enough is done. Simple. We should not have to guess at speed limits, for instance. Judges would throw out cases where the police say “The drivers should know what the limits are…” Like drinking and thinking I’m sober, when we have a limit we need people to understand what that is so that they can change their behaviour. There is no common sense, just common action.
  • We can implement rules and good behaviour more rigorously (prosecute those not using seat belts and wearing helmets, prosecute drunk or drug-induced drivers, prosecute those without insurance, etc.). I saw a motorcycle cop take great care to place and park his bike at a junction with Washington Boulevard on Friday, while about 15 primary school children raced across the road dodging oncoming buses and trucks. His bike was really well parked. The children? What children? 😛 If we believe that use of cell phones is a major contributor to accidents, then get up off our hands and do something to outlaw their use, rather than opining about how terrible is the practice.
  • We can do more to separate motorised vehicles from pedestrians (we see people ambling along 4 lane highways, setting up stalls in similar places and encouraging people to stop in places not designated for that–note what you see along Mandela Highway). Many countries with very good safety records do their utmost to keep cars away from people. It’s expensive, though. Poor us, we are struggling with the provision of so many basic services, do we want to put money into pedestrian passing places? Well, how do we value our citizens’ lives?

Some of what are the basic problems are part of what we see and enjoy about Jamaica. But, our ‘lifestyle’ comes with costs. Are we prepared to pay the price, in this case, in terms of lives? Before you jump to answer, think hard about how we show we care as a society. Think about those pit latrines in over 100 schools that have yet to be removed for proper modern bathrooms. Think about our scale of medical services. Think about our provision of fire prevention services. Think about how we deal with waste and garbage. These are just a few areas where we show at a national level how we regard the quality of our citizens’ existence.

No doubt, road traffic accidents and deaths cost us a lot in personal terms and in terms of what it does to strain our already frail services.

We set up a set of behaviours that have disastrous consequences then throw up our hands and way “What a disaster!”