Of road traffic management, road safety and road accidents

By Nobel P. Loser

Before filing this story, we took extra precautions to spare readers any big surprise. We went through our files and all available information to check, not the roadworthiness, but creditworthiness of our local experts in road traffic management, road safety, road accidents, road users and their behaviour and any other incidental matter.

Our research confirms that all of them, at least those at the higher echelon, are holders of university degrees or postgraduate diplomas in their fields of study, meaning they are well trained to occupy the positions they do. Over and above their academic training, most of them, if not all, have travelled abroad to attend courses or to participate in seminars on road traffic management and road safety. And we take it that these trips also allowed them to bring home visuals of road networks, and strategies linked with traffic management and safety. Based on these facts, their advice or policies should be above all doubt.

Still, and with all due respect to their training and expertise and experience as professionals, we are sorry to submit that we find that something important is missing in their action. Had they got it wrong in just one instance, we would understand and forgive. But the truth on record is that they got it wrong in too many instances. We will take some cases at random.

During the early 90s, the wearing of helmets became mandatory when driving motorbikes, regardless of engine capacity. A good decision most people agree, and regulations were promulgated to render the decision legally effective. Just after, enforcement officers patrolling our streets started booking motorbike drivers contravening the said regulations.

Against the background of a public hue and cry, it was found out that the country had no stock of helmets and the immediate consequence of this imbalance in demand and supply was that price of helmets shot up. End result – the application of the law was postponed; the STC was invited to temporarily join this line of business to crack down on cartels and excessive prices. It was far too easy for public authorities to know exactly the ground situation regarding availability of helmets; number of importers; quantity imported annually and timing of importation and price. This information should have guided policy makers on the timing of regulations.

Some time later, and again during the 90s, regulations were promulgated to make it compulsory for headlights of motorbikes and auto cycles to be alighted while they are being driven on public roads. A good decision again, but after adverse comments were voiced out, for technical reasons as then argued, a decision was taken to absolve auto cycles from the application of the said regulation based on mechanical and engineering arguments.

Again, in early 90s. The notoriously famous “taximeters” were introduced with all fanfare to monitor costs of trips, particularly meant for tourists. This measure attracted the same public outcry, with the same demand and supply imbalance; ending with the same scenario as regards price hike. This multimillion rupees business was closed after the business. And even when taximeters were of no use for fee calculations, it was legally mandatory for taxi owners to carry one or else face a refusal of renewal of roadworthiness certificate for their car or be booked by enforcement officers and face judicial trial. This legal absurdity has been repealed only a few years ago and the taximeter is now history.

As recently as last week, regulations had to be put to rest in connection with speedometers for motorbikes and auto cycles regardless of their age. Again, it was found that due to technical and mechanical engineering auto cycles could not afford speedometers. The application of this regulation leads to amusing situations. Every time an enforcement officer stops an auto cycle driver for the usual routine check and when it comes to speedometer, there is no way the officer can confirm its roadworthiness except if he drives the auto cycle. Think about the rest. Think about our Morris Oxford, Minors and what not.

Fire extinguishers. Insurers confirm two cases of fire within a span of several years with no human casualty. Unless engineers involved in car manufacturing are wrong, we cannot understand the pertinence of fire extinguisher. Even in Reunion Island, legally part of France, this thing has never been heard of. Except, like taximeters, this does not relate to another story of easy money business. The same logic applies regarding parking coupons.

La Vigie Road. This part of our road network has taken the lives of more than 50 persons for various reasons, the most stupid one of them being visibility and absence of lights. This was remedied much later. Same thing regarding The Vale Roundabout which was built after a number of lives were lost, though the roundabout was part and parcel of the original road design.

Speed limit. One public expert, not too long ago, seriously and publicly addressed the issue, arguing that our road network, including our local “highways”, cannot afford driving beyond the 80 km threshold. The same institution where he works has since some time increased the speed limit to 110 km! And stats can prove whether total fatal accidents are less in numbers on highways than elsewhere.

Now the cherry on the cake. The 110 km issue was accompanied by a general review of speed limits on most of our road network. Where it used to be 50 km, it was brought down to 40 km; 80 km became 60 km. Worse! Some roads running through uninhabited or thinly inhabited regions and often surrounded by sugar cane plantations now attract speed limit of 40 km; roads most used and almost crowded with traffic attract a 60 km limit! At Pailles, along the highway, the limit was set at 70 km; only to be increased to 80 km when it was found out that low speed was the cause of traffic jam.

Again, enforcement officers patrolling our roads always station their garrison within areas where one can read a 40 km or 60 km road sign; and most often in or near sugar cane fields. Everybody knows what driving at 40 km means. And as usual they produce stats of contraventions so easily collected to convince us our roads are safer. If this is not sheer “dominère” what is it?

For a test, we suggest we load a chauffeur driven BMW 750i car or any other with a CJ, a CP and an AB and invite them for a long drive on our roads while respecting speed limits. And we see if they all sign up for our actual road regulations upon arrival at their respective destination. One engineer whom we interviewed submitted that car engines are like human beings; they need to breathe in and breathe out. A BMW 750i or even a Japanese can’t run at 40 km or 60 km all the time, he says, less it ends up in the garage for mechanical engineering problems.

Last cherry. For years, vehicles are booked for emission of excess of CO2 on our roads. For engine or mechanical deficiency, you would say. The main reason was elsewhere. Diesel and Mogas are refined as per client’s requirements and specifications. The better the quality the higher the price. In Mauritius, we import diesel incompatible under EU norms; the quality of our diesel partly explains the excess of C02 emitted when burnt out. For years, owners of diesel vehicles were thus booked partly for the good reason, partly for the wrong reason.

Throughout the years and under all governments, what was missing in action was logic and commonsense. Had our local experts injected some of these ingredients into their well-researched scientific ideas and arguments as per our random list, decisions taken would not have attracted public protests. No joke, next week we will stick to road safety, public behaviour and how to keep road accidents under control.  

* Published in print edition on 25 February 2011

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