Trinidad and Tobago


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The Roadshow

By Terry Joseph
August 10, 2002

In a country where a significant percentage of its motorists own “bamboo cars”, it may be that many drivers consider such vehicles sturdy but pliable and operate them accordingly.

The “bamboo car” gets its sobriquet from source, adopting the title of the area from which came our first major supply of “pre-owned” vehicles—Bamboo Village. They are, of course, regular second-hand cars, euphemistically described to instill a feeling that the vehicle had not been previously “used”.

With prices running as low as one-third of similar models from brand-name franchises, vehicle ownership was put within the reach of persons who, by earlier rules of eligibility, might never have been able to purchase a new car and rank for commensurate self-esteem. Consequently, more than a little bit of showing-off tainted the new configuration.

Concurrently, acquisition of personal vehicles became necessary for the majority, as new communities sprang up in areas never before contemplated and well in advance of supportive logistics, including employment options.

But for all its positives, the upsurge in vehicle ownership has brought us a disproportionate bundle of problems, many of which spring from a lack of basic education on road usage. While new vehicles were hurtling into an already sagging system at a mile per minute, old assumptions remained about road courtesy even as the face of the driver and power of his weapon changed.

And in a country where citation for moving violations have become as rare as the sight of horse and buggy, the new breed of road user seems to have little concern for the possibility of police intervention, except where the offence concerns parking in prohibited zones.

Traffic jams are now commonplace, even on Sundays. Solutions as rudimentary as same-side parking, a rule common to most other civilised countries, are yet to be instituted here. A Trini still holds up traffic on both sides of the divide in order to cross oncoming streams, all for the personal comfort of slipping into a spot nearer his desired destination. Quite naturally, the disruption must be repeated on exit.

And while the world has long depended on radar to trap and punish speeding drivers, police here continue to go through an elaborate mime, hiding behind streetlight poles and tree-trunks in order to physically time the rate at which vehicles cross a predetermined stretch. This, of course, can only be effectively done during daylight hours and on the few courses where sight lines are undisturbed.

With no real evidence of policing, therefore, each Trini driver develops his personal variation of the highway code, adding spin to suit the moment and disregarding well-established protocols.

Gadgets designed by automotive engineers for specific purposes are used for completely different applications. A horn is not honked even in clear emergency, since response from the target would likely dwell more on marital problems than traffic management difficulties being experienced at the time.

The hazard-flasher is perhaps the most misunderstood device. Scientifically timed to give approaching vehicles a sense of distance from a stationary obstacle or treacherous situation (like a lighthouse is to ships), Trinis more often use their flashers while in full motion, completely defeating the purpose.

This gadget is also engaged at first hint of a drizzle, or when men are ferrying new girlfriends and wish to bring attention to their good fortune by driving slowly which, via the same opportunity, affords more time for the patently distracting seduction process. Often, the driver forgets to disengage the flasher after it has served its purpose, resulting in further confusion since turning indicators are rendered useless.

Not that indicators are viewed as essential to drivers wishing to turn corners or change lanes. Here, skill at proceeding without such aids is seen as a measurement of dexterity, the driver simply moving into the desired lane without warning, or weaving his way through snarled traffic with serpentine ease; oblivious to the expectations of fellow road-users.

Non-functional brake-lights, or those that blink and dance from side to side when applied, do not seem to trouble traffic authorities here either, although in metropolitan societies the hypnotic effect is widely viewed as a cause of accidents.

Lane driving has no real significance on Trinidad and Tobago’s roads. Often, vehicles driving abreast coming out of a stop situation on multi-lane roads simply proceed at equal speed, however slow that may be, rendering it impossible for anyone else to pass. The old rule: “Keep Left Except When Overtaking,” is as passe as its stablemate about spitting on the pavement.

In built-up areas, pedestrians advance their own rules for crossing streets. Parents actually conscript offspring to simply put a hand in the air, a habit already inculcated from soca fetes, in order to effectively stop six-ton trucks. Where a pedestrian crossing or a walk-over is provided, the fun-thing seems to be a total disregard of the facility, in favour of personally negotiating more adventurous alternative routes.

It all adds up to a kind of gladiatorial behaviour on the roads, one that new interchanges or highway-widening programmes will not solve in the absence of concomitant educational initiatives.

Governments who think otherwise are themselves on a collision course.

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Copyright © 2002 Terry Joseph