Road safety-Jamaica style

I’ve had a little block in my mind over risk-taking in Jamaica, and it’s still there for the grand picture, so let me take care of part of it, by looking at one aspect of what seems like poor decision-making on a national scale.

I’ll try to set this out in terms of anecdotes that seem familiar and place them in a sort of economics frame.

Jamaica loses about one person a day from deaths in road accidents. Somewhat like murders, we have a set of constants that exist, which, if not changed, make it hard to see that the number of deaths will decline dramatically.

In an ideal world, a place would have all over it great roads and great road users. Jamaica, however, has lots of poor roads and many poor road users. Let’s try to look at both of these, as we meet them often.

Lots of poor roads: Most people in Jamaica know districts with bad roads, usually pot-holed roads badly in need of repair. Many of these are paved and some of them have barely any hard artificial covering. Such roads present dangerous driving conditions. Drivers try to avoid the holes, sometimes at speed. Sometimes, such avoidance puts at risk other road users (drivers and pedestrians), who may be in the path of the vehicles, or following nearby, and may put at risk road ‘furniture’ (lamp posts, etc.). Drivers hit holes and have their vehicles knocked off its intended path, and all of the previous set of consequences again come into play. When rain falls, the conditions of these roads tend to deteriorate rapidly, causing the driver and vehicle to deal with the need for more extreme moves to avoid problems. We also have poorly designed and constructed roads, eg with curves that are not protected or are without warning signs, which can be dangerous in general, and very dangerous in poor weather. These elements have many things that can cause accidents. We also have roads made poor by the presence of repairs that are incomplete (holes waiting to be filled, partly filled with marl), complete but badly finished (thinly covered road patches, which may be uneven or not properly graded). We have roads with overgrown vegetation that make for poor sight lights and may also cause obstructions.

Many poor road users: From early in the life of the average Jamaica, we are taught certain habits that are not good for our safety on the roads. Let me list some of those that I know from when I was a boy and I still see. Remember that I’ve been around for about 60 years, and in that time many things about traffic have changed, such as faster vehicles, more vehicles, younger drivers, more paved roads, bigger roads that encourage speed, a tendency to want to do things more rapidly, which tends to make people rush more on the roads (both drivers and pedestrians), and many more road users (both drivers and pedestrians). These changes mean that many more problematic encounters (between vehicles and between vehicles and pedestrians) happen each day.

  • Children are taught to cross roads wherever they want, and to try to stop traffic by raising their hands. (In many other countries, this practice is used and works, but is used by adult crossing guards, eg, nearer schools, not children making their way.)
  • Motorists are not encouraged to give way to pedestrians. (In many countries, the pedestrian is given most rights when trying to cross roads, eg by laws that protect that right, or pedestrians are given a fair chance to avoid traffic, by not having to deal with it (eg, footbridges, tunnels), or by having ‘their turn’ to use the road (eg, with controlled crossing areas, whether these are simply marked (eg, Zebra crossings) or crossing areas at traffic lights.) (In Jamaica, we see the absurd situation of highways constructed by places much used by people, yet with no safe way to cross provided (look at Mandela Highway by Hydel Academy or by Jose Marti HS). These measures to give pedestrians a fair chance are most often found in urban areas (with their dense populations and many vehicles sharing space). In Jamaica, not giving way has a (risky) element of hostility to pedestrians, rather than a (safer) attitude that tries to accommodate pedestrians. In other words, drivers don’t tend to slow down when meeting passengers, thus raising the risk of accidents.
  • Drivers develop unwritten rules about priorities on the road. This may be seen by the common practice of tapping the horn to thank another driver (eg, for giving way). We also tend to allow other drivers into traffic, when it’s clear that they want passage. (Some countries teach such behaviour in certain settings, eg, my encouraging drivers to merge alternately when entering a highway from a lesser road.)
  • Drivers develop priorities that favour them rather than other road users. An example of this is that a typical Jamaican driver approaches an obstacle and takes the view that he who gets to it first has right of way. So, a driver who has to pass a parked car will tend to act as if he/she can proceed even though the obstacle is on his/her side of the road and proceeding means compromising an incoming driver who is not facing the obstacle (who is really the one who generally has the priority). You often see drivers racing to beat the obstacle, adding to the danger to the oncoming driver. The average Jamaican driver will even display his/her anger when their ‘obstacle avoidance’ causes a big risk to another road user, who dares to complain or show displeasure. (In most countries, the written rule is that those who have clear passage have right of way, and those obstructed should wait before moving into the free space.) Another feature of such behaviours is that in many countries those coming up hills have priority over those coming down hills. This tendency to favour him-/herself means that at places like junctions well-established rules such as ‘first-come-first-leave’ are not necessarily followed, and even with stop signs visible, drivers on ‘larger’ roads may assume they have priority over those coming from ‘lesser’ roads. When traffic lights aren’t working this practice is often clear to see, and may not even have the well-established notion of treating the non-working light as a stop sign, so drivers will race through junctions where lights aren’t working because they are on ‘the main’, with no consideration of the risks of doing that. Jamaicans’ tendency to favour themselves is not limited to drivers, and pedestrians will often act as if they have priorities in situations where this is really unlikely to be the case (e.g. indiscriminately crossing a road away from any marked crossing).
  • Familiarity with the official rules and laws of the road is not common. Part of this lack of familiarity comes from widespread illiteracy, and it cannot be assumed that the average road user can read and understand written instructions on roads. Although most countries have replaced written signs with signs showing images, Jamaicans still deal with many written signs with odd instructions like ‘Yield’. Pictorial signs are not always easy to interpret, however, and the general principle of warnings in triangles, may not be well-understood.
  • Defensive driving/road use is not common. Best examples of this are: (1) pedestrians walking behind parked vehicles (not in front of them, so that a driver could see them); (2) refusal to use horns as warning (that may be because we use horns as ‘friendly’ signals); not slowing down, but rather speeding up near hazards (this is seen in other countries); (3) indiscriminate crossing by pedestrians; (4) running red lights (though, frankly, it’s a practice much less prevalent in Jamaica than in the US, I think); (5) aggressive driving strategies (eg forcing way into traffic, ignoring restrictions). Car manufacturers havew helped with road safety by fitting cars with lights that come on automatically during daytime, but many Jamaicans may not understand this and try to ‘warn’ drivers that their lights are on, rather than realise that it is good to see the oncoming vehicle. (Some are locked in time to the days when draining car batteries through use of electrics was a bigger problem.) When we have a problem on the road (eg need to make a repair on the road), we don’t use things designed to warn and protect (eg reflective triangles) but will improvise (eg with sticks or rocks in the middle or the road to warn other road users 🙂 Watch a Jamaican repairing a vehicle on the highway and how he/she seems to have no regard for life and limb in where the vehicle is placed and where the repairer will operate. (Honestly, I saw a car being repaired in the outside lane of the North-South Highway, last weekend!) I also saw groups posing for pictures in the middle of the highway. 

These habits just raise the general level of risk on the roads.

Add to this the fact that a certain body of road users, namely taxi drivers and drivers of other public service vehicles tend to have road use habits that are often dangerous in the extreme, using speed and aggression on the road, as well as ignoring rules. We all know that taxis will just stop to pick up or stop off passengers. This is common worldwide, but is more hazardous in areas where road space is limited to single lanes, so that stopping blocks traffic flows, and if done suddenly increases chances of collisions, with the taxi or with its passengers (especially, if they just enter the road, not the sidewalk).

My general view is that Jamaicans need to be re-educated root-and-branch about road use. (I know efforts are in place to do some of this in schools, but we have a bigger stock of people who do not know good road use practices.) Ideally, we would make sure that every road user is properly trained and properly certified to operate a vehicle. (We know the many anecdotes about buying licences, and we see the bad results of that when accident details reveal such practices, as well as those that allow unworthy vehicles on the road.) It’s a big challenge.

I’ve not mentioned the other problems created on roads by new technology (new ways to listen to music or watch images) and how that creates distractions for drivers and pedestrians. I’m not mentioning risks created by substance abuse that impairs

I’ve not mentioned the other problems created on roads by new technology (new ways to listen to music or watch images or communicate with each other) and how that creates distractions for drivers and pedestrians. I’m not mentioning risks created by substance abuse that impairs the ability to assess risks properly, whether taken by drivers or pedestrians.

Our general approach to road use is lax, and it’s made easier to keep that stance because our law enforcers are well-known for being zealous about certain misuse rather than all misuse. So, we will see efforts to check drivers’ credentials (important, because we know that many drive illegally and without insurance), but hardly any effort to deal with motorcycle riders who are without helmets or drivers and passengers who are not using seat belts. Some of this lax policing is about resources, but much is about attitude. Cameras or closed-circuit television may provide useful deterrence, but without a re-education, it seems that the problem is being attacked from the wrong end.