Death by Petrol Tankers: Enough is Enough

On Sunday, August 15, at the Otedola Millennium Estate end of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, no fewer than 40 people lost their lives and about 25 vehicles were damaged in an inferno caused by a petrol tanker losing control and slamming into a hold up created by illegal police check point. On Sunday, September 5, it was similar story at Ibafo end of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway that consumed 17 vehicles and six people in Ibafo, Ogun State.

In the most recent instance on Tuesday, September 7 2010, a petrol tanker “had a break failure and lost control before running into some stationery vehicles parked at a Mechanic Village along the Lagos-Badagry Expressway “. No fewer than 10 people were feared dead in Lagos State on Tuesday after a fuel tanker truck loaded rammed into other vehicles, causing an inferno. The fire also consumed about 23 vehicles at Adodo junction by Mowo bus stop, Badagry. These are mass deaths by petrol tankers too many, and the unwarranted loss of lives can and should be prevented.

The problem and tyranny of petrol tankers does predate the current state of affairs on Nigerian roads. In fact, it took repeated threat and forswearing of a need for “second term” by Governor Fashola, to push the politically powerful NUPENG drivers out of inner-city Lagos roads where they one held sway and made life unbearable for commuters. These tanker drivers often taking for granted the already choked road users of Lagos would park anywhere and created some of the worst instances of road nuisance in the days gone by. They didn’t leave the city completely however, they just moved to the periphery!

To this day, plying the interstate highways that connects Nigeria’s economic nerve centers (Lagos, spanning out to every other major city) is playing Russian roulette with one’s own life in the hands of the dare devil tanker drivers that ply these roads. Aside from the very high possibility that a good number of them are “driving under influence”, the characteristic disregard for traffic rules, absence of proper maintenance of their vehicles and the police culpability in not enforcing the law but resorting to extortion on these roads virtually guarantees a death trap rather than a means of transportation.

Most of the accidents caused by tanker drivers- petroleum or non-petroleum are always near fatal (more often to other road users than to the drivers themselves), but are also preventable. As recent events clearly point to, brake failure and speed are common threads that bound these unfortunate events together. For this reason, clear policy antidotes to avoid the spiral down to a petrol tanker hell on our roads are urgently required on the state level, especially in Lagos State (and eventually nationally).

Clearly, some short term policy prescriptions could drastically reduce the incidents of petrol tanker incidents in Lagos and other heavy traffic states. These include:

1. Restriction of petrol tanker movements to specific routes and specific times (preferably between 8pm and 8am)

2. Regulation of routing techniques and processes; requiring tanker drivers to report their haulage, and proposed travel times via text or phone calls to a common state database from whence their movements can be monitored (this will also facilitate investigation in case of accidents).

3. Requirements that a special “commercial drivers license” be required of all tanker drivers (or, of vehicles exceeding certain axle) after training at a state sanctioned center. Such training should be infused with a good dose of road etiquette training and tests.

4. Deployment of road safety escorts or vehicle inspection officers on approved intra-state tanker routes, to engage in random vehicle inspection (for brake failure and other anomalies) as well as conduct breathalyzer tests (for alcohol & drug use detection) on tanker drivers.

5. Immediate removal of trucks and tankers parked by the expressways across Lagos and most major cities. Designated trailer parks for small size operators should be made available at strategic locations at the outskirts of the city. Large operators shall be required to build their own trailer parks within a set period, or face the consequence of losing their operating license.

Longer term, legislation to comprehensively regulate the commercial driving industry, including one that requires physical and mental tests of commercial vehicle drivers, registration with a state body, requires minimum resting periods or resets (that must be documented) between work hours and prescribes heavy fines and imprisonments for violating these regulations and other traffic ordinances. These fines (and risk of losing operating license) should also extend to tanker driver employers. The law should provide ample monetary reward (from a fund replenished with fine monies) for whistleblowers (from within) that report violators or operators that seek to circumvent the law, to encourage compliance.

Farther into the future, it is ultimately important that the government recognize that haulage of petroleum products above ground using these vehicles is simply not acceptable for densely populated urban areas like Lagos, Kano, Benin, Aba or Ibadan. Even if these accidents occur infrequently, the hazard of ferrying flammable substances through densely populated areas is clear and present. The risk clearly, is not worth it.

Putting incentives into place to encourage massive construction of intra-state and inter-state pipeline networks by the private sector makes sense. This can include carving out a special provision for pipeline companies that allows quicker depreciation of their investments, reduced capital gains tax on such investments and/or create an alternative master limited partnership corporate structure (as was done in North America that allows pipeline companies pay no taxes at the corporate level) to stimulate investments in the sector (winninginvesting.com/mlps.htm).

Doing nothing is basically not an option. The time to act is now; and that very well can start from Lagos state; the only state in Nigeria that seem to actually have a functional government.

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