May 10, 2007
Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy recently sounded the alarm over the high rate of road deaths and the soaring costs of medical treatment of the victims of road accidents. With a death rate from road accidents of 21.8 per 100,000 of the population for 2006, Guyana maintained its unenviable rank of fifth place among countries in the Americas for traffic accident-related deaths.
Such international notoriety quickly makes the news and does not go unnoticed by potential investors and visitors. The United States Department of State's consular information sheet warns its citizens that "driving in Guyana is hazardous," blaming a catalogue of abuses, deficiencies and poor driving habits including speeding; reckless driving; tailgating; quick stops without signalling; failure to dim headlights; weaving in and out of traffic; and farm animals sleeping or wandering on the roads. The Guyana Police Force Traffic Department which is responsible for road safety is described as "ill-trained and ill-equipped."
Little wonder, the Minister of Health groaned, an average of 18 road accident victims per week last year (about 940 persons) had to receive surgery at the Georgetown and New Amsterdam Public Hospitals alone. Every day, public hospitals are obliged to treat road accident victims, often with surgery. He estimated that the cost of care for accident victims amounts to more than $100 m per year at the GPHC alone.
When the loss of employment and productivity and partial or permanent disability are considered, road accidents cost Guyana more than $500 m per year. And when expenses for vehicle repairs and replacements are computed, the costs easily add up to about $1 b per year or more than 1.5 per cent of the national budget.
It is not that the Minister of Home Affairs Mr Clement Rohee is unaware of these grim facts. It was he who declared last November that Guyana's road death rate was "among the highest in the world." He also announced that his ministry, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the Guyana Police Force, had established an observatory to monitor and analyse the risk factors and causes of motor vehicle accidents which result in injury and death.
Is that observatory actually functioning? Where is it located and who comprise its staff? What have been its findings? What impacts have its research, reports and recommendations had on official road safety policies and practices? Whatever has been going on within its walls, the death toll on the roads certainly keeps on rising!
Police Traffic Chief Mr Roland Alleyne recently reported that by mid-April, there had already been 54 fatalities, or about one every other day, for this year. He blames most of the accidents on speeding. But it does not take an observatory to discover that fact and to detect that most of the fatal accidents occur on rural roadways that pass through poorly-lit and heavily populated communities. Those areas should be targets of strictest law enforcement and the heaviest deployment of trained traffic policemen. In recent weeks, the bloodiest accidents occurred at Bush Lot, D'Edward, Lichfield and Seafield on the West Coast Berbice; Bee Hive and Good Hope on the East Coast Demerara; and Anna Catherina and den Amstel on the West Coast Demerara.
The Police Force's response to the deteriorating road death situation was to establish another committee. Chaired by the Commissioner himself, the new Traffic Advisory Committee seems to expend its energies on such banalities as the recruitment and training of traffic wardens and school safety patrol teachers; providing adequate traffic signs and billboards; bus stops and the like. Surely these are routine matters which the Traffic Department should be capable of managing on its own.
There now needs to be new thinking about road safety. As the cost of carelessness on the roads soars, the Minister of Home Affairs can do no better than to ensure that police traffic resources are positioned and highway patrols are posted to the deadliest speedways on the East and West Demerara and the Essequibo and Corentyne coasts. That should save the Minister of Health some anxiety!