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Raffique Shah


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Curb road carnage with punitive laws

By Raffique Shah
May 24, 2009

Some 30-odd years ago, when the Solomon Hochoy Highway was completed and fully opened to traffic (initially, only one carriageway was built and used), accidents close to the Claxton Bay flyover were not uncommon. Many were fatal, and that at a time when there were fewer than one-third the vehicles we now have using the nation's roadways. Because accidents close to Claxton Bay happened more frequently than elsewhere, people tried to figure out why this was so.

I should add that I have lived in Claxton Bay since 1973, so I know that section of the Hochoy Highway well. Superstitious people blamed the "death strip" on a nearby headless statue that sat on a hill overlooking the area. It occurred to me, a realist, that it was one of the few sections of the highway that did not run straight. If you think of it carefully, from the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway entering/exiting Port of Spain, the Uriah Butler and Hochoy highways run almost straight, without corners.

The first corner is on the approach to the Freeport flyover-and there have been several horrible accidents there. On the South-bound section, several speeding vehicles "straightened" the corner by flying through the space between the two flyovers. They landed 20 or so feet below, on the Freeport Mission Road, many with fatal consequences. I recall one accident in which the vehicle that "flew" off the flyover landed on a taxi, killing one occupant. Several fatalities have occurred in that vicinity over the years.

The second, more dangerous corner is on the approach to Claxton Bay. Motorists on the South-bound carriageway face not only a sharp corner, but a fairly steep, downhill gradient as well. One can imagine, therefore, what can happen when a motorist is speeding on that approach, and loses concentration for a split-second.

He would fly across the median and should he miss the stout pillars that support the flyover, end up crossing the northbound carriageway. Travelling in the opposite direction there is also a gradient and corner, but the former is not that steep.

What these features signal to any sober motorist is that you need to be extra-cautious on approaching the Claxton Bay flyover. One should moderate one's speed, grip the steering wheel with both hands, and be ready to apply brakes if that becomes necessary. Such precautions are even more of an imperative given the speed that modern vehicles constructed with flimsy alloys can attain. Add drunkenness or being sleepy to the equation, and what you have is a recipe for disaster.

The Express editorial last Friday also correctly identified another danger-the use of cellular phones while driving. In many ways the cellphone is more dangerous to humankind than a blessing. Many motorists, mainly the young and inexperienced, seem to be glued to these devices when they are driving. Some even send text messages while driving! Few have hands-free kits that at least mitigate the dangers of talking while driving.

Experienced drivers know that once one wheel of these fast-but-flimsy vehicles loses traction, that's it. The vehicle spins out of control, and the rest is bloody history. Sensible drivers know other than lack of concentration, it's almost impossible to lose control of a vehicle-barring, say, a blown tyre or dropping into a huge pothole. Yet, whenever we hear of accidents that are claiming lives and maiming more people, there is always the report: the driver lost control of the vehicle.

Bull, I say. Driving anywhere in Trinidad, from the most remote districts to those with heavy traffic, has become a hazardous venture. In my autumn years, I now have to keep peering into my rear-view mirrors, look ahead of me and try to pre-determine what some fool might do, check the shoulder for some jackass speeding on it. In fact, within recent times, I even look at traffic approaching in the opposite direction.

Carnage on the nation's roads is cause for concern. Runaway vehicles are worse than runaway crime. In the latter, if the criminal is caught, at least he or she is brought to justice, maybe jailed. On the nation's roadways, criminals can kill innocent people and drive away without even stopping. I have long fulminated against the archaic traffic laws that offer incentives to reckless motorists rather than punish them. Imagine having to pay a fine of $200 for driving on the shoulder of the highway, or a similar amount for drag-racing.

After last week's deadly accident at Claxton Bay, Roger Ganesh, Director of Highways, visited the area to see what can be done to curb the carnage. What he needs to tell Minister Colm Imbert is that implementation of the breathalyser legislation is more important than dreaming of a rapid rail system. Fines for dangerous driving should be punitive, not puny! CCTV cameras at these "danger zones" will help capture road-criminals. Seize their vehicles and impound them at police stations: they are sure to find them missing parts and accessories when they retrieve them!

Implement a "points" system, a "highways hotline" so law-abiding motorists can report dangerous activities on the nation's roads. Too many innocent people are paying with their lives and limbs for the sins of lawless motorists.

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