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Moving swiftly

By Terry Joseph
December 17, 2004

It never seems appropriate to talk about circumstances surrounding road deaths since, at the material time, such comments appear insensitive and by leaving it for a while, the columnist may be accused of gouging old wounds, while bereaved relatives are going through the healing process.

But withholding comment only lets errant drivers avoid blame, which is almost invariably heaped upon the Government. Even more unfortunate is the ease with which the State falls for this hogwash, itself apprehensive about calling a spade a spade in such sensitive circumstances, like when several deaths resulted from a particularly bad accident in Blanchisseuse, after an overcrowded vehicle failed to properly negotiate a corner, sending its passenger-load down the precipice.

Blame was immediately shifted to the Government and away from overcrowding of the vehicle that, as any driver knows, exponentially increased difficulties associated with handling, particularly on corners after hurtling downhill. Then Works Minister, Sadiq Baksh was pilloried for not erecting a long-demanded guardrail at the turn, villagers acting as if its absence was the sole cause of the accident.

Worse, the speed with which Mr Baksh responded and the fact no major accidents at the exact site have been reported since, leaves observers with the impression that putting 13 or more passengers in a vehicle built for eight is okay, even for driving downhill and turning sharp corners, as long as there is a relatively thin piece of galvanised iron at the critical bend.

Last weekend's major accident involving young soca singer Onika Bostic contains elements of that situation. Although tens of thousands of vehicles pass the spot daily and have been doing so for decades, it suddenly became a "death-trap" in the wake of the horrible smash-up and, like his predecessor Mr Baksh, Works Minister Franklin Khan promised to have an offending drain unclogged immediately.

The drain has been a problem since my schooldays, overflowing and causing slippery conditions on a bend but performers who accept engagements 30 kilometres apart for time-slots that demand speeding just to keep appointments, put themselves to greater risk than I, who most recently encountered the same space last week Thursday night, with no resulting nightmares.

Of course, Mr Khan cannot avoid his Ministry's responsibility in this matter but perhaps he should quickly delegate the corrective portfolio and move swiftly to meet with his Cabinet colleagues in National Security and Legal Affairs and the Attorney General, to work on reduction of road accidents from quite another angle.

That speeding causes most accidents and many due to alcohol or other drug-related impairment of the driver is not in dispute. Most drivers know they can only be held for speeding on one of a few stretches of roadway in Trinidad, since we continue to cling to the embarrassingly archaic style of having a police officer with a white stick signal another, the second officer starts the stopwatch and if the plan isn't frustrated in between, a third officer pulls the victim over, while the second runs to the third to detail the charges.

Given that 2005 is virtually with us, this really is a laughable process, with police officers hiding behind trees to do their little hide'n'seek signals, then huffing and puffing to the next point and one that only works if the "hidden" officer is not visible by vehicles proceeding in the other direction, who happily flash their lights to warn potential "victims" of what is euphemistically called a "speed trap". In any event, it cannot trap more than one vehicle at a time.

Since this silly procedure can only be carried out on stretches of roadway where participating officers can see each other, straight roads are used when, in fact, bends are a lot more dangerous. Worse, the operation folds up the minute rain starts when, we may presume, conditions become even more treacherous. In the ultimate irony, speed traps cannot operate at night, the time at which we have the most accidents and indeed, the highest number of fatalities.

Meanwhile, in the civilised world, huge overhead liquid crystal displays tell drivers their speed, asking them to slow down if it be excessive and police officers are forever on the ready with their radar guns to "clock" you and issue a ticket if required, with cumulative penalties that will eventually take away the driving licences of repeat offenders. There are special speed limits for school zones, fines are doubled in areas where roadwork is being done and tripled if the particular stretch does not normally have accidents related to speeding.

Where drivers are found to be the cause of maiming or death of their passengers, the person behind the wheel may be charged with reckless endangerment or criminal negligence or even second-degree murder if it can be proven that the driver disregarded repeated pleadings to slow down or was simply exceeding the limit.

But if, in the face of today's available technology, we're going to continue with the police officer hoping to reduce incidence of speeding by holding up a little white stick, then let us not pretend outrage at the tally of road accidents.

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