Road Safety: New national priority?

The statistics of chronic fatalities indicate clearly that the introduction in 2013 of a personal “permis à points” led to the reduction of some 20 fatalities annually

The focus these days has shifted to the Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Land Transport, with its role highlighted when the PM and his close advisory team decided to launch a high-profile national security program designed to reduce road casualties and fatal accidents. The last Saturday launch event was attended by 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.

No doubt the Police Commissioner, the Road Traffic Unit, the Traffic Management Unit were also on hand to get the message. The images of handicapped citizens were meant to reinforce the sense of urgency at the cumulative and ongoing traumas and tragedies. And, appropriately, the private sector was also corralled in the clarion call. A National Priority, the topmost ministers stated in unison, and, indeed, we couldn’t agree more.

That it is also part of a rebranding exercise designed to transform the PM’s image is perfectly understood. And in many ways, over and beyond the human horror stories at stake in this particular domain, the rebranding looks to be professionally conducted, focusing on Hon Pravind Jugnauth’s natural dispositions against the political heavyweights he will have to face at some stage for a seat of PM that suffers no legitimacy controversies.

However, his minders have to be more guarded on the “sinois nef” attitude for there is a rather heavy heritage on his shoulders at every turn of the road. In the case of the tragic toll on our road infrastructure, many factors have been well known to the authorities for decades: the indiscipline of drivers and pedestrians, the rise in vehicle users, the speeding and alcohol consumption, the state of our roads, the dismal system to award driving permits, the traffic congestion raising impatience and discourtesy, and still other factors. According to some data, we consistently witness ten times more fatal road accidents than in sister island Reunion, an obviously alarming chronic situation that has not left the authorities insensitive over time.

A cursory look at our transport statistics demonstrates that the traditional response mix of raising fines, increasing sensitisation campaigns and greater road spot-checks never really succeeded in bringing down the levels of fatal accidents and serious injuries either in absolute numbers or as rates per vehicle or population numbers. If we consider three-year periods, the statistics of chronic fatalities are telling but they also evidence clearly that the novel measure, the introduction in 2013 of a personal “permis à points” (PAP) for every driver had a dramatically welcome effect, and could at first sight be attributed the reduction of some twenty fatalities annually.

2010 – 2012:      158, 152, 156 deaths

2013 – 2015:      136, 137, 139 deaths

2016 – 2017:     144, 157, with a tragic 160 trend for 2018
based on early figures.

Knowing those figures but no doubt trapped by its own campaign pledges, the incoming government nonetheless banished the PAP while introducing a new National Road Safety strategy in July 2015. The Government Information Service Bulletin proudly posted:

The National Road Safety Strategy 2015-2025, Road safety: A national urgency, has been 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.

Disregarding the fatalities statistics for 2013-2015, the Bulletin can be further quoted as follows:

According to the Minister, road safety is a national urgency and priority. The present situation has become a national urgency: we cannot continue to have 150 road fatalities in a year because it is too high a price,” he affirmed.

The July 2015 master plan also envisaged the setting up amongst others of (a) a National Road Safety Commission to be chaired by the then PM, SAJ; (b) a National Road Safety Council to coordinate the activities of all concerned agencies and departments, and (c) a new Traffic Enforcement squad of 40 flying riders to watch over all strategic locations and book irresponsible drivers.

We don’t know what happened to the “forceful bid” or to the national urgency and priority of July 2015 or again if any of the above measures were implemented as the Lepep government got absorbed for the past three years by internal turmoils and numerous high-profile affairs of its own making.

We cannot say either whether the Lepep government, once in office, should have had the wisdom to recognise the merits of the only measure that seemed to have had a lasting downward effect on road fatalities and forego a key element of its electoral populism. The PAP 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. The PAP probably needed some fine-tuning and no doubt the Reunionese expert roped in by the Minister could have provided more useful advice to that end.

That government felt the need today for a new high-profile National Priority, as testified by last Saturday’s exercise, is in itself testimony of the wrong turn taken in 2015 and its consequential failures: road deaths have soared to their pre-PAP levels. Keeping to the traditional approach of more and higher fines accompanied by threats of stiffer measures may have some desired effect but a substantial reduction had already been achieved without that heavy-handedness.

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it…” – to quote Rick Warren. Politicians can become endearing by admitting they went wrong and correcting the trajectory. Fine-tune it, but bring back the PAP.

 

* Published in print edition on 23 February 2018

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