Stop the murder by vehicle

Woman's-eye View
By Andaiye
Stabroek News
July 9, 2000

Following last weekend's latest multiple deaths by road accident I saw the Chief Traffic Officer, Mr Slowe, on TV, appealing to drivers not to speed and to passengers not to allow drivers to speed. I tried to take the front off my TV so I could speak to Mr Slowe face to face and ask him, screaming, "What exactly are you appealing to? The good sense of drivers who would race on Vlissengen Road and kill two other men proceeding innocently home from their jobs? The good sense so many of us displayed when we refused to use the East Coast or Railway Embankment Road because the humps stopped us speeding? The good sense of the authorities who removed the humps to facilitate us? What exactly, Mr Slowe?"

Here is the roll call of multiple deaths by road accident in Guyana in the last eight and a half months. I don't want to repeat the names of those who died. Instead, I will group them by age so we can remind ourselves how much this is about the murder of innocents, and the murder and suicide of Guyanese in their young adulthood:

* September 17, 1999, on the Linden/Soesdyke highway, 6 dead: three aged 20-29; one aged 40-49; one over 50; one age not given. * October 31, 1999, on the East Bank Demerara Public Road, 3 dead: all three aged 20-29.
* December 3, 1999, on the East Coast Demerara Public Road, 7 dead: one under 10 years old; one aged 11-19; three aged 20-29; two aged 40-49.
* March 6, 2000, on the East Coast Demerara Public Road, 12 dead: only three ages given - all three under 10 years old.
* July 2, 2000, on the Soesdyke Public Road, 4 dead: one aged 11-19; one aged 20-29; one aged 30-39; one aged 40-49.
* July 3, 2000, on the Linden/Soesdyke highway, 8 dead: three under 10 years old; one aged 11-19; two aged 20-29; one aged 30-39; one aged 40-49.

Seven children under ten years old, three adolescents aged 11-19, twelve young adults aged 20-29, just among the thirty whose ages were provided in the newspapers I was able to check.

Whether it is the suicides in Berbice or these road deaths, our collective willingness to respond with only momentary attention and momentary horror - this says something about our national psyche and it does something to our national psyche.

What to do? Some time ago it was proposed that in each neighbourhood, those willing and able to do it should form committees for public safety to perform real community policing - that is, policing not only against bandits but against all obstacles to the safety and viability of the places where we live. Others have called for the revision of the Motor Vehicle and Traffic Act. Whichever we do - or both - it means that each of us, including many of us who pride ourselves on being law-abiding, would have to give up some of the 'rights' we are now exercising. The right to turn right into Camp Street from Croal Street although it's against the law. Or the right to obstruct traffic with our parked container trucks.

It is not just that we have to be willing and/or forced to obey old rules and laws. In some cases, we need to make new rules and laws that take account of our changed circumstances. For example, we can't make the centre of Georgetown residential again, but we can make and enforce rules and laws against the congestion of pavements by small vendors and the congestion of streets by big truck owners, and against the speeding and noise and overcrowding of mini-buses.

We would need to stop being spectators in our own lives. A Member of Parliament recounted for me the other day an incident where he asked the driver of the mini-bus in which he was travelling from Berbice to stop speeding. He recounted the abuse he received from the young conductor. The end of the abuse and the speeding only when he threatened that he would get the driver's licence taken away. The silence of the other passengers until the end of the journey when some said that if they had objected to the speeding they would not have been listened to. I do not know whether they felt it was his colour or his status that gave him authority they themselves lacked, or whether their inaction was just an expression of what has become our national motto "whuh yuh (not we) gon do?" - followed by a sigh. We have to punish those who cause death by vehicle whoever they are. In the last, say, five years, how many arrests of those who have murdered by vehicle have been made? How many charges laid? How many convictions secured? What sentences have been served?

More slowly, more gradually, but starting now, we have to do more to re-develop a culture that works, part of which must be redressing the sense and the reality of economic or racial or age or regional or other marginalisation.

I asked a member of the Alicea Foundation to comment on the latest deaths; the Alicea Foundation was formed in September 1996, on the initiative of Alicea's mother, Denise Dias, just over a month after the teenager was killed by a driver who had allegedly killed another person 7 months before, and who is still at large. This is how Beverly - Alicea's aunt - began her response:

"My 10 year old has an extremely effective way of indicating that I just don't get it - a long drawn out "helllllooooo!" Well, hellllloooo, Mr Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Minister of Works, Mr Commissioner of Police, parents and anyone else who is supposed to care that 12 young people were brutally murdered on our deathtraps this weekend. Do we have so many people left in this country that we can afford to wantonly throw away lives on our deathtrap roadways? Will we get the usual police response where they stop a few cars, take down a few names and lock a few up? The only thing that they really know how to do well is blame someone else; last month it was the insurance companies who give blanket insurance to mini-bus owners irrespective of who drives. But helllllooooo! If wayward drivers are being insured they are also being licensed! If you are responsible for an accident or worse yet a death, shouldn't the police take away your licence to drive? Entertainment-starved Guyanese by the thousands drive up to the Soesdyke/ Linden highway for a little R&R. Half of the drivers will be consuming alcohol and half of those who become intoxicated will feel that they are the baddest men on the block and will attempt to reach home in 20 minutes flat.

Alcohol and speed are the combination that will kill us all if left unabated. So helllllooooo, Mr President! Get real and let's have radar, breathalyzers, streetlights, seat belt usage and a point system for licences instituted now, today. It's already too late for 7 year old Joel and 9 year old Ramona. We all need to wake up and get angry with this senseless road carnage. How many does it take for the government to do something, for the police to do something, for us all to do something? We may not value our own lives but we should not be playing God with our children. In the end, the people to whom we should be calling 'Helllllooooo', are ourselves."

The gap between the size of the problem and the size of our collective response cannot be allowed to remain unbridgeable.

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