Few things show the failure of inaction in Jamaica as well as the number and types of road accidents here. There’s a periodic wailing and gnashing of teeth happening as the latest data show a sudden increase in the number of road traffic deaths.
Let’s look at the numbers that have caused the concern. Road traffic deaths rose by nearly 50 per cent between February and March this year, according to the latest data from the National Road Safety Council (NRSC). 83 persons were killed on the roads during the period January 1- April 3–a 20 per cent increase when compared with the corresponding period last year. Pedestrians continue to figure prominently in the data with a total of 27 killed during the period January 1 to April 3. Statistics compiled by the NRSC show that 35 persons died in motor vehicle crashes last month, a 41 per cent increase when compared to the 22 road deaths recorded in both January and February. A breakdown of the NRSC data shows that the leading cause of road fatalities this year was speeding, which accounted for 22 deaths, followed by pedestrian error, which resulted in 14 fatalities.
Put simply, Jamaicans drive too fast and pedestrians are very careless–a lethal combination in a place where walkers and cars often compete for limited space.
Dr Lucien Jones, vice-chairman of the NRSC, noted that recklessness and an increase in cell phone usage by drivers were also among the main contributors to the spike in road fatalities. But, “My own feeling is that it is due to recklessness, but we really don’t know,” Dr. Jones conceded to the Gleaner.
The National Security Minister Peter Bunting is alarmed and convened a meeting with the police and other key stakeholder groups last Thursday, at which a raft of measures to stem the increase were discussed. The results? It was agreed that the Island Traffic Authority, the Transport Authority and other government agencies would put measures in place to ensure that drivers with multiple outstanding tickets are not reissued licences. I thought that action against that would have already been in place after the crash last September that took more lives of Holmwood HS student, when it was found that one of the drivers concerned had hundreds of unpaid traffic fines. That disaster was met with calls for a dedicated and regulated rural bus service. We saw some extra JUTC buses for a few days. Then what?
Mr. Bunting’s meeting also agreed that the police would be provided with additional resources to carry out their traffic-management functions while the National Works Agency will be asked to repair and repaint pedestrian crossings, lights and street signs across the island. One does not need to be a cynic to say that this is all a bit late and also indicative of that careless attitude that is all over Jamaica. Check how many streets have no signs, or look for signs that cannot be read, or look for signs that are just wrong. We have how many unemployed people? What can we ask prisoners to do for ‘hard labour’. Do your jobs, people! Threaten to cut their funding and see how fast they react.
The happy-go-lucky nature of much of Jamaican life is well illustrated by how we let children deal with traffic. Almost any school day, you’ll see groups of children skipping along merrily on a road, then some of them will gather and hold hands and try to cross a road. They’re used to traffic stopping for them and will often put up a hand–like a crossing guard would–to indicate cars or trucks should stop. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have a nasty accident. Many times, children just run into the street. One of my favourite hated sights is the front of Jamaica College (JC), in Kingston. When school is out in the afternoon, school boys swarm the roads in their dark blue shirts and cross at will in numbers, to catch buses, buy bag juice, start walking home, and more. They just leave the school and head across the road. I have never seen a guard patrolling in front of the school to even try to slow down traffic. The school principal, Dr. Ruel Reid, is an enlighted educator and now a Senator, but I wonder if he has just lost sight of his pupils once that last bell rings. However, I imagine this is a coming sight across Jamaica, it’s just particularly stunning on the busy highway near JC.
While we may be shown the results of many road accidents they are unlikely to have much effect on us. The nature of road use here is such that people take silly risks and do not accumulate the results and change their habits. It’s infectious. Over the weekend, I drove round-trip between Kingston and Ocho Rios, taking the two preferred routes. I headed north to the coast via Mount Rosser. I don’t like that route because of the problem with slow trucks going over the mountain, but also because I find that driving on that road is a bit hairy. It was not too bad early on Saturday morning. The north coast roads are very good–thanks to our care for the foreign exchange-wieldiing tourists. But, it often means excessive speed along many of the stretches. However, I saw no accidents. I came back via Port Maria, which is a more scenic route and tends to have slower driving. Ironically, I saw two accidents; one rear-end, the other a head-on collision which was the cause of much discussion between drivers and police as I passed. Only two vehicles were involved in both cases, and it was unclear why someone would drive into the back of another car on a straight stretch, and the head-on collision seemed odd as no third vehicle was there to suggest a bad overtaking move.
On Sunday morning, heading to church, I saw an accident at a quiet street corner, with two cars facing each other; one lady driver was looking at the damage and had her arms folded in an angry fashion. It looked as if a car had cut the corner from the main road and been surprised to find another vehicle coming to the junction.
These incidents indicate what’s common about accidents in Jamaica. They happen in a random fashion, all over the place. There are very few constant black spots. Our carelessness and inattention are just constants. Our road conditions don’t help. Pot holes, debris in the road (including rocks or tree limbs). Weather can worsen matters, when we have slippery roads, but also occasional flooding to cover holes and make driving just harder.
Drivers in Jamaica do crazy things. I often have to deal with a speeding SUV or truck trying to bore past me up hills on my way to school. The road is filled with pot holes and makes for tricky driving when going slowly. At speed, it’s just too dangerous most of the times. Yet, the tail gating starts, then the dart out and back in, then…three miles driving directly in front of me, a whole two seconds ahead. People have not processed that the speed and recklessness have had not real gains. In one case, a student who passed me once on the hill in this fashion, arrived at school after me, because I took another set of streets off the hill. I had a good talk to her and warned her about her recklessness. She gained absolutely nothing from the manuevers. But, perhaps the adrenalin rush was it. Lucky, this time.
Motorcyclists in Jamaica are like Kamikaze pilots. Yesterday, on our way to swim practice, my daughter and I saw a rider and his pillion passenger–dressed in butt-cheek revealing shorts–weave in and out of cars along a road, and nearly getting squeezed between two of them as they rode along the lane separator line. I’m sure they were both thrilled. But, could both have been killed. We see people doing wheelies on the roads for long distances. Yee-haw! Helmets are a luxury, and even if worn, cocked on the head is the preference so that the rider can see without looking through the small visor opening!
Many drivers do not use seat belts and many passengers too. Worst, is the number of children seen standing in cars, often in the front, and it’s not just in packed taxis. In uptown Kingston, it seems like a privilege of the rich to have their children unstrapped. These are many of the better-educated people in action, and even those who are foreigners (judging by their diplomatic licence plates) have been bitten by the Jamaican traffic virus.
Dr. Jones says he’s not sure what is really the reason, but thinks recklessness is a major cause. I’m sure he’s right, in a general sense. He wants to lay some blame on cell phone use. I’m not so convinced. I’ve mentioned before that drivers talking on the phone in Jamaica are often clear to see–they drive more slowly. If speed contributes to accidents, then the chatty driver may be safer, for a while. I wont push that though, because we know that yackety-yacking can lead to a lot of inattention. But, here, the attempt to multitask behind the wheel is much as in the US, just with different props–sometimes box dinners are on the go. We also do that with more hazards around–goats, donkeys, broken down vehicles, cane debris, windscreen washers and vendors, loud music blaring, soup pots on the roadside, etc.
I have little confidence in the police’s willingness to deal with reckless driving. I’ve seen them turn a blind eye too often. Last night, driving home, we were stopped at a major intersection, where two lanes of traffic were on each side, and a right turn lane was on each side. Two cars popped through the turning lane to my right to go ahead of me, already waiting at the front at the lights; they were therefore in the pedestrian crossing area, and partly in the lanes for the crossing traffic. I said something to my daughter in the back. Then, up came a motorbike police man, passing the two cars and now sitting in front of them so that he could be first! When the lights turned green, off he sped. What was I to think were his concerns about road safety? How about near zero. I was not able to see his licence plate, but I noted the numbers of the cars, just in case we had a problem as we drove on. So, I say boldly, the police do not care. If they did, then they would not act as the officer did. Don’t give me any claptrap about his being just one. He’s what I see, and he’s incontrovertible evidence. I see such inaction often, just not so blatantly done with me so near. The police like to stop people on the highways to demand papers and stand and talk to them about some infractions. They are also blithely ignorant of the risks they create in such situations. Again, yesterday, coming back into Kingston along Mandela Highway, a driver was standing with his door open, abutting the highway, and he was adjusting his clothes, while two officers were walking past him, in the roadway. Why did I and my passenger need to weave to avoid them? It’s just the way… Mr. Bunting, be alarmed, but see whom of your charges are delinquents.
None of this is new. Just search through the newspapers and reports, now online. We added to our problems with new highways that did not account for the transitions between communities, so people play ‘Russian roulette’ crossing them to get from one village to another, sometimes with animals. We have roads with few sidewalks–it’s part of the quaint charm of the country, much as US suburbs are also often without sidewalks, but fewer Americans get out and walk everywhere. We know that walkers use our roads that have no sidewalks because we can see the paths they carve from years of constant use, trying to squeeze themselves near to a wall or just walking in the roadway. It’s just the way…
I have never seen mention of drugs and alcohol as contributors to accidents in Jamaica, which is odd given our love of drinking and the liberal attitudes towards drug use; and Jamaica has a breathalyzer test. But, do we have enough equipment to administer it?
Reducing road accidents doesn’t need rocket science. It needs some improvement in infrastructure. It needs a bit of diligence and a lot of intelligence. Education needs to be made much more rigorous. Our children often do not understand the risks they run on the roads, but are often left to negotiate them without adult help. On any given day, while I see a handful of adults walking young children to or from school, I see ten times that number of children walking alone, from elementary age through high schoolers. They cannot all be supervised but they could be better informed. Drivers often know what they are doing is wrong, but they are in a rush and getting a rush. We have special categories, in the form of taxi and minibus drivers, but they are just a special pedigree amongst a pack of otherwise wild dogs. They may show some of the worst behaviour but are really not far ahead of the crowd.
We have busy roads, often single lane. Lots go on there. How else will I get hot peanuts and mangoes and a new charger than by having some youth walk with it amidst the traffic? They are not often hit, but they add to the general risks.
But, we love to talk about problems and then think that substitutes well for action. It doesn’t. So, how about a bit less talk and some real action. Mr. Bunting has enough on his plate that he cannot solve easily, but the accidents problem is an easier nut to crack.