Road safety: the problems that cry out for solutions

Former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was famous for amongst other things lauding one of her ministers for not bringing her problems, but bringing her solutions. I’m in a bet of a funk about one of Jamaica’s problems that seems to be presented as problems with really not much that looks like solutions, to me.

Road safety is one of our major social problems. You don’t really need to have a survey to see what are some of its major aspects.

The average Jamaican road user is a mixture of ignorance and naivety. Why?

Look into the cars that pass by on any day and what do you see? You see drivers not wearing seat belts and passengers not wearing seat belts. You see drivers wearing seat belts, and often, children not wearing seat belts–sometimes ‘cutely’ peering to the front as they sit in the space between the front seats. All the data on the risks that are reduced by wearing seat belts have not seeped into the Jamaican way of doing things.

Watch the motorcyclists that speed along the roads. Many, maybe most, do not wear helmets. Or rider has helmet, but pillion passenger does not wear one. The most bizarre thing I have seen was a rider with helmet on and a pillion passenger carrying the helmet in his hand on the rear seat.

IMG_0716This picture of man and child is almost iconic. It speaks to the good and bad of what we do: the good is the man wanting to take a child to school; but it’s being done in a very dangerous way. I’ve seen often the same image, but with the man being a cyclist, and the child standing on the crossbar. It’s, on the one hand, a cute image of traditional Jamaica, but it speaks to our inability to move with the times.

Yes, I’d be quick to say that I rode a bike without a helmet all my life as a child. But, I’m also convinced that I was lucky to not be killed in an accident and I do not put my own child at such risks.

In Jamaica, many could claim that the extra cost of safety measures is too much for their meagre incomes. That’s hard to challenge. That argument does not fly with most cars and seat belts, which are fitted as standard nowadays, meaning only very old cars are not equipped this way. We’re not asking that cars have working airbags. We have the means but lack the motive.

We have a set of statistics on road accidents that hover around 300 deaths a year. Our road safety agency ‘urges’ many things, but is it really doing enough that is concrete to tackle the problems, which–if ignorance and naivety are at the core–means lots of education, and re-education?

Let me take the stance that I do not see much going on.

We have a problem on top of the problem. It’s the role of our police force to enforce many of the measures. However, I’m sorry to say that that job seems to be have been outsourced. To whom? The applicant has not yet been identified. Just in one area that is heavily trafficked every day, but is also replete with police I see the kind of indifference that can mean only that bad road practices are either ignore or accommodate or encouraged.

I drive along Mandela Highway early many mornings. I can list some of the bad behaviour that is now common.

Drivers decide that the single line traffic going west is too slow and move into the designated bus lane for vehicles heading east into Kingston. It’s a simple ruse and most do it to get past a few vehicles that are moving slower than the road allows, but they are well in line with the speed limit. The transgressors have not yet met a bus head on. But, they do pass either police or staff monitoring the road–with no reaction. Quite rationally, risks are less than rewards, so the practice wont stop naturally.

Pedestrians try to dash across the multilane highway to cross to Hydel School. Whoever decided that the school be located where it is is certifiable, if no change in road patterns were put in place. Jamaica is one of the rare countries where highways are commonly crossed by pedestrians without the aid of bridges or underpass, or even with designated crossings. It’s run and hope. See what happens occasionally with Highway 2000, was people and animals cross that fast-moving road.

At a junction on Mandela, where buses move from the regular two-lanes going east to the designated lane, a police officer, or more, is there, principally to stop non-authorized vehicles using the special lane. Just after the crossover, a makeshift bus stop now exists. If one bus stops there, other buses behind cannot go ahead. Aiee! Who didn’t think that one through?

The officer often does little to manage traffic. Just last week, I was heading onto the highway from the road coming from Caymanas golf course. I wanted to turn right to head west. The junction was blocked as the officer let vehicles move even though they had no clear way forward. The light changed in my favour, but I could not move. I waved to a driver to pull back and another to edge forward. I got my space. As I entered the junction, I paused and asked the officer why he’d let the drivers block the junction. His response? “Have a nice day, sir.” Well, that is not an untypical conflict-avoidance response, but it never addressed the problem and of course many officials in Jamaica are uncomfortable when they are put in the harsh light of having to take blame for not doing their job.

But that cameo speaks volumes. We’ve a police force that does not do its job. I mentioned to someone in the road safety business that I often see police doing little more than check their cell phones. Maybe, JCF has a new text messaging set-up to keep officers abreast of problems occurring. Wouldn’t that be something? Let me suggest that it’s private business being conducted. Anyone with knowledge otherwise, please correct me.

We’re very good at the wailing and gnashing of teeth when another horrific accident happens. I’ve passed a few in recent months, the worst being when a minibus left the road near Swansea, Clarendon, early one Sunday morning in December. The reason? Speed, for sure. I’ve not heard other news to suggest that alcohol or drugs were also in the mix. No other vehicle was involved. More lives lost. Police and fire brigade officers were deployed and dealt with the carnage. A crowd was there, peering for a view. Many of us have seen it, before.

Last week, we heard about another accident that speaks to the nature of the policy problems. A disabled man was run over by a JUTC bus, after the bus had stopped to let him pass. Bizarre. But, it pointed to a combination of inadequate actions. Roads without sidewalks. Sidewalks blocked by light poles (and garbage) that force people to walk in the road and hence be more at risk. This is commonplace in Jamaica. We’ve public agencies that are good and not doing a good job. They were quick to point fingers at each other for the blame for the proximate problem of the light poles. JPS? NWA? Not me, Miss! Pathetic!


The need for clear sidewalk access is clear, but we have the perpetuation of situations that go directly against what we know we need. That is so typically Jamaica, nowadays. That this accident happened in front of the university hospital is too ironic for words.

We love and need vendors, but when they block our sidewalks, the benefits they offer are not worth the inconvenience they cause.

We’ve set up systems that accept, by default, that many lives will be lost. We throw up our hands and say “Problems, problems…”

I am all for democratic processes, but I’m also less tolerant of public agencies sitting on their hands and telling me that they have or see problems. Dead people whose lives are lost needlessly are also problems.

Dealing with some of the poor practices means doing things that may seem harsh, but one’s trying to move public behaviour that is obviously not adapting.

We’re told that one of the major problems underlying road use is the lack of legal coverage, with no insurance and no drivers licences. My attitude is that something is terribly wrong if THAT IS KNOWN. That suggests that someone has turned a blind eye to transgressions. I do not see motorbikes on the road without registration plates. Therefore, why can’t it be that the registration of a bike can only occur if insurance is in place and if the designated rider has a licence? Of course, there are ways around that, but that takes effort. What is worth the effort? If it’s a problem, then set it up so that renewals have to be more frequent so that the chance to slide by the rules are reduced. That ups the risk of being caught. No more registering a vehicle and then having that valid for say two years. Make it a three-month registration, or similar. That raises bureaucracy but for the benefit of weeding out those who want to break rules.

There are lots of way to make things like that work and it’s much easier if technology comes into play. It’s hard to see that you can have an online data base and not use it to monitor quickly the status of road users. We can bleat and say that the organizations don’t have the hardware, but if we can flood schools with tablets we’d better find ways to get agencies like JCF and road traffic managers up to the mark.

Our police are well-known for doing road stops of motorists. Can’t they target motorcyclists? Some say the riders are too elusive. Really? So elusive that their registration plates cant be noted? If it’s that we cannot tag that back to a rider and get to the person, then we know what needs fixing.

I’ve asked the National Road Safety Council several times about a particular problem that we have but seem unwilling to tackle.

Our public bus company is involved in an extraordinary number of accidents. Traditionally, public bus drivers have superior training and drive with a high degree of care. We had recently reports of JUTC buses being tampered with to allow them to exceed speed limits. That tells me that road safety is not highly regarded by the staff working for the company. I’ve asked how our rate of JUTC accidents compares with other countries. My suspicion is that we are far worse.

Add to that the many ways that private minibuses and taxis disregard road rules. Stopping anywhere to pickup and let off passengers. Cutting in and out of traffic. Boring into lines of traffic to make headway. Driving on parts of roadways not meant for vehicles. Blocking areas to which they have have no right. We’ve had reports of how ‘robot’ and real taxis have ‘captured’ areas in front of some gas stations. It’s a part of an anarchic system that should be stopped.

We have lots of inadequacies that are used as excuses for tolerating things that we do not like or want. Poor roads. Poor sidewalks. Inadequate staffing. Inadequate concerns about following rules and putting public good above private greed. Racing taxis and minibuses using the ‘need to make a living’ as the reason for driving at breakneck speed and putting all of us at grave risk. Blocking roads as if they are the private domain of taxis and minibuses, with passengers so desperate to make journeys that they do not see the dangers that are posed as real reasons to stop using the offered forms of transport. Some may even love the thrill of a potential spill.

I’m personally past putting up with “It’s a problem” and seeing that being so much part of the DNA of a country that sets itself up to fail, again, and again.