Enforcing the traffic laws Editorial
Stabroek News
January 20, 2002

In our Friday edition we reported on a press briefing held by Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj, during which he said that sections of the new traffic act were to be fast-tracked. One of those sections related to the use of seatbelts, while others concerned curbing the use of boom boxes in vehicles, the introduction of radar guns to stop speeding and the bringing in of breathalysers.

Mr Gajraj also told the media that the government would be making more resources available to the force to assist in the fight against crime and in restoring order on the roads. A fleet of vehicles, he said, was in the process of being procured for the force, while approximately 300 new ranks had already been recruited.

Traffic education was also not being neglected, he told reporters, the proposal being that children should be targeted via television and broadcasts to schools. With this end in view, discussions had already started between his ministry, the police authorities and the Ministry of Education in order to work on strategies.

Well prima facie all of this sounds very hopeful. However, the real test is whether the new regulations will be systematically implemented. Even if the traffic laws as they currently stand had been consistently applied, we would not have had as much anarchy on our roads as we have now. We have had, it is true, various campaigns in the past when the traffic police swarmed over the city's streets like busy worker ants checking documents, or seizing boom boxes from noisy mini-buses, but as though affected by a change in the seasons, they would disappear again after the space of a few weeks just as suddenly as they had appeared.

It is true that the Minister acknowledged the need for the enforcement of the new regulations, and it is in relation to that issue that he alluded to resources being made available to the police. However, the problem of getting the members of the force to do their job efficiently most of the time goes well beyond the matter of a lack of material resources. The police, like every other organization in this country, has also been the victim of the general decline in educational standards. The average policeman (or woman) on the beat has to be literate enough to express himself reasonably clearly in speech and in writing, to give a coherent account as a witness in court if required to do so, to know the law as it applies to offences, to understand that law, to apply it impartially, and to grasp the limitations on his or her powers. All of that in addition to being courageous, honest, etc.

Which all does not mean to say that the authorities should not

demand high standards of their officers, but it does mean that they may have to look at their training programmes carefully, as well as consider ongoing monitoring schemes for their recruits after they have finished their period in the Felix Austin College. It could be that if they are not up to standard, they should be sent for supplementary training.

However, in the public perception the educational standards of the police ranks and their sometimes imperfect knowledge about what constitutes an offence are ancillary problems. As far as citizens are concerned, the real challenge to getting the traffic laws enforced on a continuous basis is quite simply corruption. Despite what senior officers on the force have said on the subject in the past, nothing will persuade the public that the culture of the 'raise' is not endemic. Until that situation is acknowledged by the administration, and active measures are taken to confront it, the new regulations will not be as effective as they should be.

There is something else too, which is quite outside the control of the police. That is the justice system. If, for example, the police were to do a truly thorough job and bring to book all our traffic offenders, it would completely choke up the magistrates' courts - at least in the initial phases. And then there is the question of sentencing - a subject which has been in the news recently. Trivial sentences for serious traffic offences, or meaningless penalties for even minor traffic offences, will not produce the results Mr Gajraj is hoping for. Similarly, if court processes are too lengthy, there will be a greater temptation for mini-bus drivers, for example, to subvert the system in order to reduce the time they spend off the road.

The fast-tracking of new regulations is to be commended. However, it is only step one in the process of restoring order to our highways and byways. The Minister must not ignore steps two and three.