Better ways to improve road safety

By Nobel P. Loser

Sometime at the end of the eighties, two or three road accidents were registered on part of the highway located just behind the headquarters of ex-Mammouth. During a few sittings in Parliament, this issue was brought up on and off by the then Opposition, “disloyal” you would be tempted to say. The parliamentary and unparliamentary remarks made and the innuendoes were enough to put our then CEO off his hook.

The next thing that happened was when he cornered the unexpecting Commissioner of Police (who comes calling every morning to brief the PM about national security or other incidental matters) about this matter during a morning briefing session. The latter’s reaction was immediate and straightforward. The solution proposed was to install traffic lights in the incriminated area. No second thought was spent on it thereafter.

This anecdote contains all the necessary ingredients for any student wishing to pursue further studies to become a road safety expert. Our own conclusions are as follows — for road safety, it was suggested and approved that traffic lights be installed on a highway! The reason for this suggested measure of last resort was not so much to avoid road accidents and deal with road casualties but first and foremost it was intended to put an end to excessive and unwarranted political attacks. No other argument or idea or counter argument was offered or had the chance to be heard. Luckily enough, the idea to also install humps (as it is the fashion on other roads today) on this part of the highway never came up.

Afterwards, it became almost “un jeu d’enfant” for road-cum-political experts to address the issue of road accidents and above all to prevent them happening. Apart from the installation of traffic lights, Mauritius entered into the next phase to build humps all over the place. And they seem to be very practical: they are removable and replaceable whenever VVIPs choose to travel along existing humped roads to check in or check out at their hotels.

And Mauritius being Mauritius, it is very easy to find out an MP, a PPS or a minister ready to pursue the act even to absurd levels if he or she has to give a covering approval for hump building or installation of traffic lights whenever and wherever.

Till this day, no serious thought has been given to the very essential issue of road accidents per se or fatal ones and how exactly to go about it, as regards long-term policy, to prevent same. One fatal accident is one too many. The problem is that experts and public authorities are afraid to speak out the truth and they prefer “koze nimporte” to drown the fish.

The poorest and most unacceptable argument that is usually rehearsed is to lay the blame wholly and squarely on the driver – “chauffeur-la”! In other words, it is the car driver and nothing else that should pick up the blame! It is understood that all else have nothing to reproach themselves, including any reckless pedestrian.

First lesson. Without going into many details and without casting aspersion on any person or authority, please check it out for yourself by just asking your nearest neighbour how he got his driving licence? Last week, we asked a Mauritian who obtained his in Reunion Island. The narrative we heard from him was enough to convince us that over there, the system is different, the training is different but both of them can be plagiarised without committing any political, administrative or diplomatic contempt.

For clear policies to be properly designed to increase road safety and prevent avoidable accidents, we need to go to the record. Take La Vigie Road as an example. As far as we know, it has left 50 dead. Many if not all were “avoidable accidents”. The construction of the second carriage way and the installation of lights along that road have helped solve the problem of visibility and prevent accidents.

Now back to the record, which is about stats. To tell you honestly, nothing raises our eyebrows and puts us off more than when stats are wrongly interpreted. For us, not only do stats tell us very many things about the problems on the ground but they can also give us clues on how to go about making sound policies.

First, there is need to review and revamp the whole process of education. This is the biggest and most important chapter regarding the policy aspect. A ten-minute appearance of a guy in uniform on TV or radio falls short of a correct approach to dealing with the issue. The timing of broadcasting, the message to be broadcast and the amount of persuasion with which it is done: all these matter a lot. One should bear in mind that the Police can provide part only of the solution.

Second. A proper analysis of road accident stats can tell us about the age of those involved; their driving experience; their knowledge of the road network where an accident has occurred; the time it has occurred and the weather conditions or road visibility at the time it happened; the speed at which those involved were driving; the age of the cars involved and their engine capacity; and whether they were positively tested for alcohol or not. Yet another element is to identify the “dangerous zones” island wide. This would help design and implement specific actions to be taken to prevent accidents in such areas.

Among the many solutions to make our roads safer, it is not difficult to find out that a bit more of road courtesy, careful driving, respect for road signs, can go a long way to prevent avoidable accidents. It is assumed that the vehicles should meet the test of road worthiness at all times. The anecdote quoted in the beginning helps prove that too much emphasis is laid on “punishment” as a policy and less on other important issues. The “permis à point” is now branded as the perfect solution to make roads safer. Part of the solution, may be, but not the solution.

By the way, have our experts ever reckoned with the standard of road behaviour of pedestrians or drivers of electric bikes, motorbikes or motorcycles or bicycles on our roads? There are also quite a few such vehicles which are poorly lighted or not at all and several cases where the drivers wear no phosphorescent protective jackets (used as signage)? Do we realise how dangerous an absent mind can be on our roads due to such distractions like talking while driving or using mobile phones while on the steering wheel? Have we ever witnessed how drivers of lorry containers negotiate roundabouts in or around the port area when they have cars or motorbikes coming from their right?

Consider one example. The traffic light at Ilot near RTSS had some technical problem last week. Any police officer assigned for duty there can confirm. It was non-stop green for all traffic going to or coming from Flacq the whole day for two days. Think about the risk drivers went through? This kind of situation speaks a lot about the efficiency (or inefficiency?) of a service that is unable to detect such a problem and repair it in time. Lucky that it was not a train junction for train crossing!

But don’t get us wrong. We strongly believe we can make our roads safer and we need to. The one condition – get our policies right.

* Published in print edition on 3 March 2011

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