Road fatalities: the costly wrong turn

It is high time to reverse the trajectory that has not only failed but actually reversed death tolls and greater road safety in the country

Having dealt with the issue of road safety and the atrocious toll of fatalities some time last February, I am naturally rather loath to stoke further the issue, but the continued stubborn pursuance of the failed strategies put in place since 2015 and the belated recognition of such dramatic failures recently by the Prime Minister, Hon Pravind Jugnauth, call for some comments.

A high-profile media event and the launch of a National Security Program designed to reduce road casualties and fatal accidents was conducted in February this year. The launch event was attended by the imported Senior advisor on Road Safety, several senior Ministers including the responsible Minister Nandkumar Bodha and the Minister Mentor, who added his own imperial critical voice regarding the ongoing and largely unsatisfactory situation. A national priority, the topmost Ministers stated in unison and, appropriately, private radio stations and the private sector were also corralled in the clarion call to battle stations.

Despite these high-profile national events in February, at a function in Flacq reported on 14th April this year, the PM was reported to have said the following, recognising the bare facts and cruel statistics that hide hundreds of brutally broken lives and bereaved families:

« Le nombre d’accidents de la route est préoccupant et, ce, malgré les différentes campagnes de sensibilisation ».

The failure of another master-plan since 2015 was in the air. The death toll had then reached 54 in the first three months of 2018 and two months later, as of the time of writing, it stands at a harrowing 74, twenty more in the 2 months that followed the flurry of prime ministerial declarations. Yet the strategy put in place since 2015 would be pursued, said the PM, despite the accumulated evidence of its notorious failures:

« On va continuer avec les campagnes en espérant qu’il y aura un changement de mentalité de la part des piétons, motocyclistes et automobilistes. »

We recall that upon taking office in December 2014, the Lepep government seemed bent on respecting campaign allegations and pledges that the Permis à Points (PAP), the speed cameras and the various fixed penalties were, amongst other denunciations, unfairly fleecing ordinary citizens of the country and were threatening taxis, vans, tourist coaches and a multitude of private transport operators with losing their passport to livelihood.

That it was also a passport for irresponsibility on our unsatisfactory roads was largely ignored on the populist wave of promises. The PAP and the speed cams were duly abolished in January 2015 and, as compensatory strategy, the Ministry launched in July 2015 their alternative, a ‘2015-2025 Strategy for Road Safety’, sub-titled ‘A National Urgency’ — … released in a forceful bid to improve road safety amid general concern over the high death and injury rates among road users since the beginning of the year.”

While the Strategy provided some measures, they were to be beefed up by a new National Road Safety Commission chaired by SAJ as the then Prime Minister and a new National Road Safety Council, the lead agency. The National Road Safety Commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, meeting every six months would define national objectives and goals, and determine policies and priorities regarding road safety projects and programmes while the Council would be the executive/implementation arm of the strategy.

Their work may have been very discrete since neither was heard of thereafter and the “forceful bid” strategy seems to have been buried in favour with the new National Security Program launched in February this year by the current PM, program which is itself already withering with the accumulated unabated fatalities since its mediatised launch barely a few months ago.

We do not need to stress here that our often deplorable road conditions, the sense of responsibility of some road users, the knowledge of good courteous and safe driving practices, the abuse of alcohol or excessive speed or speed unadapted to weather and road conditions are some of the many known factors of road fatalities and the death toll on our roads. So is the annual rise in vehicle numbers and traffic congestion in general. And it is recognised that all punitive measures should be accompanied by extensive sensitisation campaigns right up from primary schools to focus groups on the more vulnerable or irresponsible road users. These are not new to any local expert let alone to an imported one who took several months just to familiarise himself with our landscape.

A mix of contributory factors to road fatalities is present in every country, worse in newly emerging economies where public infrastructure has enormous difficulties coping with increasing demands of growing users. All of them probably quest for improved strategies concerning tragic death tolls of more than a million worldwide. The quest is for finding measures that work in pushing the trend or the existing plateau to a new lower level and thereafter build on the new baseline for further pushing down the plateau another notch or two. Where a particular measure is failing to impact or, much worse, actually raising the death levels, it does not require competent authorities more than three months to cancel the ill-advised measures and correct the trajectory.

France, for instance, has a current death toll of about 64 per million inhabitants, a figure nearly twice its European neighbours (from 40-50 in UK, Germany and Spain), despite similar traffic regulations, including alcohol or speed limits. Yet since the early 70s, this is a four-fold reduction from 17,000 to 4,000 annual deaths currently. This was largely due to intelligent analysis and step-wise adaptation of new measures, often against initial driving community outcry, consolidating those that work, modulating or abandoning rapidly those that are ineffective, or, very rarely, those that are counter-productive.

The mandatory seat-belt, motorcycle helmets and speed limitations markedly pushed down the plateau in the seventies. In the eighties came the measures and focus on driving under the influence of alcohol and the nineties saw the introduction of the PAPs, each taking down the plateau another notch. In 2002 came the now ubiquitous speed cameras, under the forceful bid of President Sarkozy. We need not stress the variety of education campaigns that preceded and accompanied each downward push towards safer roads and less horrific casualties.

We do not either need to stress that none of these step-wise measures were easily accepted. The inertia and populism ingrained in the road user community, some vested interest groups and rearguard sectoral media were ever present at each progressive milestone. It needed determined political will acting on the best advice of knowledgeable traffic and road fatality analysts, constantly monitoring and advising on measures that are effective, those that demand adjustment and those rare ones that should be scrapped altogether and without delay, if their impact is demonstrably negative.

We have such a situation here where quite obviously the Permis à Points (PAP) and the speedcams over three years reduced road death tolls from its previous 155 average plateau to a new 135 average. The PAP, once fine-tuned, beholds every driver to act responsibly while fines can be borne by the self-employed, the employers or businesses who shrug them off as part of their distribution or marketing and sales business costs. Despite compensatory master-plans and strategies, with the political abatement of these two measures, road fatalities have racketed up dramatically and may cross the 180 mark in 2018.

An intelligent body politic should have taken stock, fine-tuned or adjusted the measures and focused on a new set that might take the plateau a few downward notches towards 120 or 100 with the combined help of media, private sector and concerned NGOs. By removing the first and obviating the second for long periods, we gave bad signals and took a dramatic and demonstrable wrong turn. It is high time to reverse the trajectory that has not only failed but actually reversed death tolls and greater road safety in the country.

 


* Published in print edition on 25 May 2018

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