Making Our Roads Life-Worthy!

The human carnage that continue to unfurl on our roads daily is heart wrenching. Doctors, lawyers, traders, mothers, fathers, innocent babies all seen dying for no good reason. In a country where human resource is lacking, we can t afford to lose our best and brightest on the roads.

Eighty-seven per cent of the vehicles mainly commercial buses and light vehicles that now ply the city streets are older than 20 years or between 15 and 20 years. It was estimated says 3,502 buses and minibuses out of 4,042, now playing the city roads, are either older than 20 years or approaching the 20-year service life expiry. The Federal Road safety officials said most buses expired the age limit of 20 years fixed by the government. They said in most cases, the manufacturing date mentioned in the registration book was doctored in favour of the vehicle during import. The latest statistics available with the agency show that 500 buses and 2,998 minibuses, given permission for operation, are aged between 15 and 20 years. We were concerned about the mechanical device the vehicle as the cause of accidents, yet people are calling for the ban of 207 mini buses but no one has called for the withdrawal of licenses from undisciplined drivers. Today there is a paradigm shift from blaming the vehicle to human beings who man the vehicle.

I am not an expert on road safety. What I can do though, is apply the free commonsense that God gave me. Commonsense tells me that, corrupt licensing process, bad roads, lack of driver qualification, poor law enforcement, bad road signs, alcohol abuse, poor driver judgment, lack of effective outreach programs, a broken court system, intransigent and corrupt auto insurance enclave, lack of quality cars due to bad import policies, lack of standards for car parts, pedestrian error, absence of transportation master plan, and poor integration of multi-modal transport system is causing these uncalled for accidents. The entire system is bankrupt. What needs to happen is a systems approach to taming this beast. What we see in the form of accidents, is the end result of a complex set of reasons. It cannot be attributed to a van or a particular car!! I am convinced without a doubt that if the driver of that van was not driving a 207 Mercedes bus, his reasoning or the road conditions would not have been any different. To blame an inanimate van for the judgment error of a human being is rather unfortunate. It is the same as saying that guns kill by themselves. We all know better!

Impatience on the part of drivers is also a major cause of accidents on our roads. In England and other parts of Europe, the police can fine a driver for riding on bad or worn out tyres. It appears in Nigeria there is a leeway for drivers to drive on worn tyres. This gives rise to the issue of imported used or secondhand tyres. The question is; what causes a European or American user to throw away his tyres? Yet we rush to import them to use on our cars. The process of acquiring driving licenses is marred with corruption. Driving licenses have become like a commodity available to those who can pay. It is like the Nigerian passport, which many non-Nigerians manage to acquire. There are some people who have never before sat behind a steering wheel but are able to pay their way through to acquire licenses. What is the implication of this? When this happens, we leave all road users at the peril of inexperienced drivers.

The Vehicle Examination and or Licensing Department must wake up. There should be proper training before one can secure a driving license. This brings to mind the issue of the driving schools we have in the country. Who sets the curriculum? How long should training of new drivers last? What should be the qualification of an instructor at a driving school? These are the questions that ought to be asked and most importantly, answered!

Another thing we can talk about is the unworthiness of some cars on our roads. A recent “nigeria4betterRule” forum analysis demonstrated how most of the vehicles are not road worthy and yet have valid VELD and National Insurance sticker firmly glued to their windscreens.In most advanced countries, drivers who commit traffic offences are fined and penalty points put on their licenses. The points are predetermined for the different categories of traffic offences. Up to a certain level of penalty points accumulated, one can lose his or her license either for a specified time or even in some cases for good.

Police corruption on the road has not been helpful either. The police here will rather take a bribe and let off a negligent driver than worry about the thousands of passengers who use the car for transportation purposes. The little number that ends up in court either bribe their way or get slapped on the wrist. No credible remedial driving education exists in the system. Notorious drivers with a record of repeated violations continue to ply the road. There is even no information system that retain fresh data on individual driving activity over the years. There is no data base to help fashion policies or deal with trends. So for all you know, the police could have a recidivist driver on their hands and not know it. Don t worry, the more inveterate your offense, the more fat or pork it garners for the corrupt police crooks. Given the backdrop of daunting challenges, you wouldn’t think this is the same country that can afford a 30 million presidential mansion to befit a modern day president king, huh? Yet poor Mercedes 911 is the culprit here? Blame the car! Ban it! What next? 504, 345, 740, 300? Just take your pick! Where will all these unqualified and crazy drivers go when you take the 207s off the road from Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, or Aba road in Port Harcourt?

We need a quality regime in this country. Some sort of standards board that continue to ensure that cars and parts for such are the best on the market. As it stands, most owners use, used parts for their cars. Some of these parts have outlived their usefulness. Even some unused parts can be of poor quality. Yet, we permit them into the system. Yes, we can institute standards for parts if we choose to. We can do this for both new and old parts. We can create jobs by doing it too. If the slew of Phds, parading as leaders, cannot figure this out, then God save us. I did not say it will be easy. However, opting for the path of least resistance should not be our default position.

What do we do? Many have called for a better test for drivers, a better check on the road-worthiness of vehicles, and better warning signs at dangerous turns on our roads. Sure, all these will help, but some require lots of resources and others need an attitudinal change, which occurs very slowly. But there is an effective tool which have not been tried: a better regulation of the commercial transport industry. This is not new, and it’s not my idea. In fact, all over the world, road accidents (as a percentage of total traffic) is lower when commercial transport is ran along company lines. It allows the public to choose to ride with the safest company, and consequently, each company will strive to provide the best service. Anyone remembers the days of relatively decent services from ABC Transport? Well, that’s because the buses were clearly marked.

Unfortunately, so much of what passes for regulation and policy in this country is made that way: no hard facts based on research or primary knowledge; just subjective hunch or speculative thinking. Supporters of the proposed law, which for me is little more than blatant, class-based discrimination, claim that the policy is necessary to reduce traffic accidents, implying that somehow “uneducated” drivers and a lack of formal education–are responsible for most traffic accidents and fatalities on our roads. I continue to believe that there are no facts to back up this claim. Nor is the claim supportable by common knowledge or by the history of driving in Nigeria.

There are, however, more than sufficient facts and common knowledge to support the observation that there are too many vehicles immobilized on Nigeria’s roads. Many of our roads, which are meant for moving vehicles, have been turned into parking lots and garages for immobilized or stationary vehicles.

Vehicles that break down on our roads are left on our roads, sometimes for days, and when mechanics are eventually brought in to repair them, they repair them right there on the roads, turning entire lanes into garages. As the immobilized vehicles sit, waiting to be repaired (almost never to be towed), the only notice that passing vehicles get that there is an immobilized vehicle ahead are a few tree branches placed and scattered a few yards or meters away from the stationary vehicle. Obviously these tree branches do not illuminate in the dark, thus heightening the danger that a vehicle traveling in the same lane as the immobilized vehicle will run into the latter vehicle. This, sadly, is how hundreds and thousands of lives are lost on Nigeria’s roads. These “parked” vehicles, which have commandeered entire lanes unto themselves, have become death traps for unsuspecting drivers.

The tragedy is not that this problem exists; the real tragedy is that no solution appears in sight, year after year after year. And yet, rather than think about solving this real problem, we divert attention into some prejudice-driven discrimination that may or may not have much to do with this problem of immobilized vehicles or of accidents on our roads generally.

Nigeria needs a no-nonsense, well-regulated towing service industry to rid our roads and highways of these dangerous immobilized vehicles. The challenge is how to do this effectively nationwide. First, I propose that each district assembly and district police command be given towing rights and authority over the roads and highways that lie within their territorial jurisdiction.

Second, each district assembly should be required to purchase tow trucks and equipment and operate a towing service or else assign tow service rights to licensed private sector operators within their locality. The Ministry of Transport, in collaboration with the Local Government, can pre-finance the initial purchase of these tow trucks and heavy-duty equipment for the area, with repayment of the cost to be made by the districts from the revenues generated from operating the tow service.

Third, national law or regulation should authorize and require the towing by the relevant district assembly (with the assistance of the district police) of any vehicle that is immobilized on any road or highway within the jurisdiction of a district. In cases where towing is not immediately feasible, the vehicle must be officially impounded on the spot, and while it sits there all of its cargo must be offloaded or the cargo portion detached and pulled away and the immobilized vehicle monitored and illuminated by the police at night. Fines must be levied by the district assembly for every hour or specified fraction of the day that the vehicle remains immobilized and impounded on the road. The amount of the fine should be based on the N10,000 (or more) in fine for each hour or specified fraction of the day that they remain impounded on the road, plus a surcharge if the vehicle remains immobilized overnight. Vehicles towed should also be levied a fee for each hour or specified fraction of the day they remain in the custody of the district, subject to the right of the district to dispose of the vehicle by public auction if it has not been claimed after a certain fixed number of days. Proceeds from the fines and auction should be retained for local development by the district assembly concerned.

Fourth, to ensure accountability, the relevant district assembly and district police command should be held responsible, and the appropriate officers subject to discipline, including discharge and, in appropriate cases, prosecution for criminal dereliction of duty, if a fatal accident occurs involving an immobilized vehicle that was not towed or impounded at the time of the accident.

Fifth, vehicle operators would be required under the proposed regulation to make a report to the appropriate district assembly and district police command immediately their vehicle becomes immobilized on a highway. Failure to make a timely report would be a separate criminal offense. Owners of vehicles immobilized on the roads that cause accidents should be held criminally liable (in addition to the drivers) for any resulting deaths or damage to property, and be subject to penalties that must include a confiscation of the vehicle and stiff fines. The Government should also encourage and advice families of persons injured or killed in such accidents to bring tort suits, including wrongful death suits, against the drivers and owners of such immobilized vehicles. This may require new wrongful death statutes to extend strict civil liability to vehicle owners.

Finally, the existing regulation (I presume there is one) prohibiting vehicles exceeding a certain weight from traveling at night should be extended to and enforced in a decentralized fashion against all vehicles carrying certain exposed cargo, especially timber, bags of maize, charcoal, or yams. All such vehicles must be required to park at a place away from the roads after sunset and recommence their journeys after day break. The same rule should be extended to any vehicle whose tail or brake lights are defective: the law must order such vehicles to stay off the roads after sunset. Again, authority must be granted to district assemblies to enforce this regulation, in collaboration with the police and private tow services. Criminal penalties, including impoundments and towing of the vehicle and punitive fines, must be levied against vehicles that remain on the roads in violation of the No Night Driving regulation. Also, in the event of an accident involving any such vehicle, the vehicle owners must be held strictly and criminally liable.

While the immediate goal of this proposal is to get immobilized vehicles off our roadways, the ultimate effect would be to make it extremely punitive, both financially and criminally, for vehicle owners who allow their road-unworthy vehicles to ply our nation’s roads. The system of road-worthiness certificates has obviously failed, and we need to put in place new or additional measures to deal with the risks that vehicles in poor mechanical condition continue to pose on our roads. My proposal also aims to apply appropriate carrots and sticks to support decentralized enforcement of discipline on our highways. It is time to bring district assemblies and private tow services into the implementation and enforcement of regulations and discipline on our roads and highways and provide them with the necessary legal authority, facilities, financial incentives and accountability to get the job done.

If Government cannot find and implement appropriate remedies to basic, recurring everyday problems like these, what else do we need government for? My proposal may not solve or prevent every road accident caused by an immobilized vehicle, and I haven’t aimed at perfection in this initial proposal. But one thing I do know for sure is that my modest proposal is better than doing nothing or issuing driver’s licenses only to speakers and readers of the “Queen’s English”. (Will the Queens-English speakers and readers also be the ones exclusively qualified to drive the tro tros and tankers and timber trucks?)

Owing to the socio-economic impacts that road traffic accidents generate, it deserves to be given political priority and commitment. Unfortunately in Nigeria, there appears to be a lack of political will to make interventions that support road safety campaigns, such as in developed countries like the United States, Japan and Finland, where the personal commitment and interest of their heads of state in the maintenance of sanity on the roads has culminated in a drastic decrease in road accidents and adherence to road regulations. In Nigeria, wearing of seat belts is yet to become mandatory, yet a lot more people are dying through accidents where seat belts could have saved them.

Other issues that need to be considered in order to curb road accidents are sustained public awareness, information dissemination, public campaigns, and making road safety an integral component of the curriculum for basic and second cycle schools. Reviewing and enforcing appropriate legislation as regards road safety, training and retraining of drivers on the Highway Code and defensive driving techniques, introduction of the safe community concept (a concept that promotes injury prevention activities at the local level to solve local highway and traffic safety and other injury problems. It uses a bottom-up approach involving ordinary citizens in addressing key accident and injury problems), managing drivers through collaboration, cooperation and commitment.

The urgency and the need for action lies in the fact that every nation’s best resources are its people. Any death caused by road accident means we are losing the very resources that we need to move our nation forward. Enough has been said. Now we need all concerned to start acting to put an end to this perennial cause of woe in many families.

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