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Raffique Shah


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Backward ever, forward never

By Raffique Shah
May 27, 2012

For all our boasts about technological advancements we have achieved—"4G smart phones", "wifi hotspots", GPS in vehicles and on phones—it is amazing how we remain mired in backwardness when it comes to dealing with fundamental problems. The classic is carnage on the nation's roads.

Last Sunday's horrendous crash that left four people dead and senior Appeal Court Judge Wendell Kangaloo critically injured is a case in point.

In the immediate aftermath, as always happens, scores of persons holding high office and organisations aplenty weighed in on the issue of lawlessness on our roads and highways. For the umpteenth time, most of them appealed to motorists to exercise caution. The police promised more mobile patrols. A few called for the re-introduction of speed traps. Others asked for cable barriers in medians to be extended to cover every kilometre of divided highways. Yet others felt that nothing short of 12-foot walls would suffice.

Back in June 2007, addressing the issue, I wrote, "Driving at high speed, a main cause of carnage on today's overcrowded roads, is merely a reflection of the animalistic tendencies that so many of humankind have receded into. Human life has no value, whether it's on a gang turf or the public road. It's why so many of these murderers-on-wheels can trigger mass deaths by their recklessness and simply drive away as if nothing happened. They stand even less chance than gunslingers of being caught, and if they are, they escape with petty fines that make murder-on-the-road ‘no big thing'."

I appealed to then prime minister Patrick Manning to divert some of the hundreds of millions of dollars he was spending on the capital city's skyline to dealing with lawlessness on the nation's roads by introducing intelligent traffic management systems. I pointed to the introduction in the UK of extensive CCTV networks and automatic number plate recognition devices. I even recommended the "Dubai option", which combined electronic monitoring with punitive impounding of vehicles for serious violations of traffic laws.

Nobody took me on—not Manning, not the new People's Partnership Government or Arrive Alive or dead! Indeed, it seems many among them want to pile police corpses onto the carnage-heap. Can you imagine the police setting up old-time speed traps, one cop hiding behind a lamppost armed with a stopwatch, the other waiting with a rag to flag down a speeding motorist? Both of them dead before they even begin such a stupid exercise! Ditto of radar guns which necessitate the physical presence of the police on the deadly jungles we call highways.

I have written before, and I repeat today, the best median barriers would do is confine the carnage to one side of the highway. They are costly to install and maintain, and they are unsightly. As for police presence, how many cops would we require to effectively police all the highways in the country around the clock? The numbers and costs are mind boggling, and the potential benefits are miniscule.

On the other hand, even as we toy with archaic options, other countries are moving ahead with electronic systems that are yielding immense benefits. A few weeks ago, the police and other authorities in India approved a 20-CCTVs surveillance system for the 94-kilometre Mumbai-Pune expressway. It is expected to cost US$1.3 million, with cameras strung out every ten kilometres.

The report on the project stated, "According to the officials, footage captured by the CCTV cameras will provide details of speeding vehicles, which would enable the police to take action against them. It will also help the authorities to study accidents and find out the circumstances in which the mishaps took place. Apart from that it will also keep eye on the illegal trespassers and robbers on the expressway."

Convincing? Read on. In 2008, shortly after I wrote the piece I quoted from earlier, Dubai was about to increase the number of CCTV monitors and upgrade them using wireless technology. A report then said, "The system would be used alongside closed-circuit TV networks installed around Dubai developments, such as the Dubai Marina network, where footage taken at the time of the Lebanese singer Suzan Tamim's murder will be used as part of the prosecutor's case."

Crime-ridden Mexico is also pursuing the electronic option. A few weeks ago, a toll road concessionaire awarded a US$21 million contract to an IT corporation to install intelligent traffic systems on three motorways. "The company will furnish each motorway with vehicle detection and recognition systems, variable signalling, closed circuit television, traffic data collection systems, weather stations, SOS telephony, infraction detection systems and communications. The main control centre will have vehicle recognition, billing, communications, as well as back office and customer service systems to collect the tolls."

In the UK, the country with the highest deployment of CCTVs and similar monitoring systems, the fear is for people's privacy—which I would readily sacrifice for my safety. A 2006 report spoke of systems upgrade. "Existing traffic cameras in towns and cities are being converted to read number plates automatically as part of the new national surveillance network." Its automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system is more than impressive.

"The National ANPR Data Centre stores all ANPR data feed from the various police and civic CCTV networks in the UK … the Centre is based at Hendon in north London, the site of the existing Police National Computer. In March 2006 the National ANPR Data Centre could store 50 million number plate ‘reads' per day."

All of these developments across the world but we are still at the stage of waving rag and flag at killer motorists! Tell me we are not a backward people living in a near-primitive country with our heads buried where the sun never shines.

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