What if our roads were managed as projects with safety as first priority?

A public row erupted last week about a section of the newly constructed ring road of Port Louis which has developed important cracks and fissures in a sector near the Pailles mountain edge.

This seems to indicate that there would be structural flaws in the foundation upon which the road has been built in that particular place. After discussions, the contractor has agreed to set things right at his own cost. One would have expected that the contract should have specified clearly the responsibilities of the two parties, notably the contractor and the commissioning agent, the Road Development Authority. Matters would then have been sorted out without much ado. But this is Mauritius: this mechanical problem could easily be politicized and sight lost of the real concerns of the moment in this area.

Historical importance of roads

Many will recall the winding and narrow roads we had in this country in yesteryears. A few vestiges of this past can still be seen in some villages. There were numerous sharp bends, twists and turns all along those rather narrow two-way “royal roads”, as they were called, connecting different parts of the country. Were insurmountable physical obstacles the reason behind so many of the sinuous contours of our road infrastructure at the time? Was it a problem of acquisition of land that diverted them from the straighter path they would normally have taken?

No matter the handicap, in those days of no power-steered vehicles, the state of our roads made for a less accident-prone traffic compared to what we see today. No matter their complicated outlay, people welcomed paved roads when they came to their places for the first time. It was some kind of a social elevation to be belatedly taken in by the network connecting them to the mainstream, albeit at a much more slumbering pace than what we see today. Those were the days when bicycles far outnumbered cars and other vehicles in the country because this is what most people could afford to buy up to secure their greater mobility. An endowed village could have a couple of private cars, no more. People and goods travelled by horse-driven carriages, donkey and bullock carts, trains (until 1964) and trucks. Passengers travelled by bus and private cars later when they could afford it. Times have changed drastically now.

There has taken place a major shift in our physical infrastructure compared to those days. Not only has the quality and fluidity of our roads improved considerably. There has also taken place an enormous growth in the vehicle population of the country. Had it not been for this up scaling of our road and other infrastructure, the pace of growth of our economic activities would not have been what it has been over decades since we diversified the economy.

Free movement of people and goods and reliability of the transport system can make the whole difference between a country which succeeds economically and one which doesn’t. Along with efficient communication, the country’s transport system is the basic factor which supports and empowers our services industry as well as our port and airport activities and, hence, our opening up to the rest of the world. This is why it would not be superfluous to dedicate enough resources to keep the transport system fit and fine at all times.

Safety of the transport system

Modernization and rapid development of the country’s road infrastructure brought about other developments in its wake. The first car was introduced in Mauritius in 1901. By 1930, there were 2700 cars in Mauritius and a total vehicle population of about 3000. But by 2003, there were 276,371 vehicles in all in Mauritius which increased at an annual average rate of 15,148 vehicles per annum over the last 11 years to 443,000 today. Such dramatic development has come about not without attendant risks.

The combination of better-made roads and a rapidly increasing vehicle fleet in the country has made our roads more accident prone than ever before. There were 21,056 road accidents in 2012 in Mauritius and another 11,246 in the first half of 2013. Road accidents ended up with 156 deaths in 2012 and 82 in the first half of 2013. On a half-year basis, road accidents resulting in death increased by 19% between 2012 and 2013. Figures show that 41% of those killed in the first half of 2013 were riders of auto/motor cycles, 23% passengers, 16% pedestrians, 15% drivers and 5% cyclists.

This does not bode well on the side of safety. The lowest global death toll on roads currently is 3 per 100,000 population per annum. This was achieved by Sweden on the back of a deliberate policy called ‘Vision Zero’ whereby the Swedes have set as objective “not to accept any death or injuries on our roads”. In comparison, the death toll on roads is 5.5 for the European Union, 11.4 for America and, by contrast, 40 for the Dominican Republic, the worst performer in this respect on earth. In the case of Mauritius, this statistic was 11 in 2003; in 2012, the latest for which statistics are available, it had climbed up to 12.5 per 100,000 population. Like the Americans, we should find out how the Swedes are implementing their road safety policy so efficiently and we should adopt those measures before the death toll escalates.

Briefly, the Swedes have planned roads prioritizing safety over speed or convenience before building them up. They have low urban speed limits. They have earmarked distinct pedestrian zones. They have erected barriers which separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic. They have created “2+1”roads: each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking. Pedestrian crossings are not only very numerous matching the density of this kind of traffic; they are safer and include user-friendly pedestrian bridges, zebra stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected by speed bumps. Strict alcohol driver testing is in place with the result that only 0.25% of drivers are tested over the alcohol limit. Unbuckled drivers and drink-driving have been reduced to the strictest minimum by rigorous enforcement. Regular enforcement has made a difference.

Does road safety come at a prohibitive price?

Many would think that putting in place road safety measures and enforcement would be too expensive. This is not so. A paltry amount is needed to do so relative to the total project cost.

According to International Road Assessment program (IRAP), an engineer road safety charity of the UK, it would require just 1-3% of the road construction budget to make roads with the same level of safety as in Sweden. Such a small investment will yield higher returns, not only in economic terms, but also by saving lives unnecessarily lost in road accidents.

In all soundly implemented projects, it is their efficiency and enduring character that counts. It requires a comprehensive vision of the project, incorporating the safety aspect much before the work is begun. It also calls for an unstinted attention to detail while the work is being completed – and even after it has been completed – to ensure that it has been executed according to the finest points set out in the independently-given original design.

IRAP calculates that road accidents cost 2% of GDP for high-income countries and 5% of GDP for middle-and-low income countries by way of medical bills, loss of output and vehicle damage, altogether costing $1.9 trillion a year. Global road construction amounts to roughly $500 billion per annum. 1-3% of this budget to implement road safety measures is nothing compared to the annual cost of $1.9 trillion incurred due to road accidents.

We could improve our standards of road safety if we paid more attention to how countries around the world are taking pre-emptive actions before the danger assumes unmanageable proportions. Soundly thought-out actions, not words, will lift us out of the danger lurking behind our doors.

 


* Published in print edition on 7 March 2014

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