Editorial — 15 December 2018
Too much grief plus $108 million

A 2018 World Health Organization fact sheet says that 1.35 million people die in road traffic accidents (RTAs) each year, and that the cost of RTAs for most countries is about 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP). (Some might dispute the WHO’s estimation of the costs of RTAs. For sure, these include immediate loss of life; loss of production over span of life; private insurance costs; vehicle loss, damages; hospital costs; public insurance costs; disabilities….)

The website, worldlifeexpectancy.com, said that 77 Belizeans died in RTAs in 2017. The website did not mention the number of non-fatal injuries caused by RTAs last year. It is doubtful that the final tally of tragedies on the roads will be any better than it was last year. It seems that no week goes by without at least one fatal RTA. In 2017, 77 Belizeans dead and $108 million (3% of our estimated $3.6 billion GDP) was way too much grief and financial drain on our little country.

The Transport Department isn’t doing enough, but the department earned a few feathers this year and last. Motorists traveling the George Price Highway, between Belize City and the highway’s junction with the Hummingbird Highway, and on the Hummingbird Highway, appreciate the yellow line and the reflectors, cat eyes, in the middle of the highway. This improvement makes it much easier to travel at night.

All of us – pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, drivers, and law enforcers – have a role to play in reducing the physical/emotional pain and financial loss. At this time, the festive season, we are especially called to do all we can to cut down on this scourge in our country.

Accidents will happen. But we can do better. The management at the Belize Mills Ltd. decided, some years ago, that they were having too much pain and down time due to physical injuries, so they gave an incentive to their workers. We can find out if the incentive was monetary, or if it was the pride of doing better, or both. We know they are doing things “better,” because every time we pass by their business place we see a sign which boasts of the number of injury-free days at the mill.

Accidents will happen. But we can do better. Firstly, we have to get past the psychological hurdles caused by superstition and familiarity. There are people who place destiny over science. They believe that what will happen, will happen. They believe that man who joo fu heng kyaahn drown. For such people, we have to find a way to make them grasp completely, that accidents are caused by physical error, physical failure, not bad luck.

The thousands of Belizeans who grew up on the sides of the highways really have become too comfortable with speeding traffic. You take a country person and deposit them in the sea and immediately they start fretting about sharks, although no one in Belize knows anyone who has fallen prey to the beasts of the deep. But that same person is completely relaxed in a world where vehicles doing 50 and 60 mph zip by. They are so “familiar” they have little thought that drivers fall asleep, are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or that the tires or suspension or drive train on their vehicles might fail.

The WHO report says that the people who are most vulnerable to road accidents are the less well off. “93% of the world’s fatalities on the roads occur in low and middle-income countries, even though these countries have approximately 60% of the world’s vehicles,” the fact sheet says.

We have to respect the science behind road accidents. Accidents are no accidents, there’s a physical reason why they occur. People using the roads have responsibility, and people driving on the road have responsibility. The conditions of the vehicles (state of repair) on a road are a factor, and the conditions on the road are a factor.

Road accidents bring such pain and are such a drain on the most productive citizens, the effort must be made to force people into line. In Belize, every week should be road safety week. Road safety must become a part of every school’s curriculum.

The factsheet says that pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists, are the most vulnerable. Our transport officers must insist that we do the right thing. Most accidents occur in the late evening (dusk), and night. Pedestrians and cyclists should all wear light-colored clothing. Cyclists should have reflectors on their bikes.

People don’t change overnight and sometimes a push is necessary. Transport officers in each district could take an area in their jurisdiction and make a little “display” of muscle. Pedestrians and cyclists who are stubborn should be accosted and given a little lesson.

Motorcyclists seem to be an especially endangered category of road users in our country. Transport officers and police must bring the hammer down, make sure that they know every safety rule of the road. Motorcyclists who go to the transport department to renew their driver’s license or license/relicense their bike for use on the road, should be tested/retested to ensure that they know the safety rules of the road.

Buses are the most important form of public transportation and so that section of road users absolutely need the closest monitoring. In each district, there should be qualified government personnel to carry out monthly inspections to ensure that buses are roadworthy. Bus drivers, especially those who drive long distances, must be monitored to make sure that their employers are not asking them to carry too heavy a load. In some instances, government should consider some form of subsidy for employers, so they can ease the load they are putting on their drivers. That won’t break our economy.

Drivers of private vehicles (and buses, trucks too) must appreciate the role speed plays in accidents. The WHO fact sheet says that an “increase in average speed is directly related both to the likelihood of a crash occurring and to the severity of the consequences of the crash. For example, every 1% increase in mean speed produces a 4% increase in the fatal crash risk and a 3% increase in the serious crash risk.”

Another major concern of private operators is the condition of their vehicles. Most private vehicles in Belize are of the secondhand variety. It is basic that the safety features on an older vehicle are not as good as when the vehicle was new. Transport officers and police manning checkpoints should make it a habit to advise drivers of older vehicles to keep their speeds down.

We are not a money-wealthy people and so we sometimes ask our vehicles to do jobs that they weren’t designed for. Overloaded vehicles are not uncommon on our highways. It is imperative that our authorities explain to drivers of overloaded vehicles why they must carry along at a near snail’s pace, especially when human beings are their cargo.

Alcohol and drugs, as we know, play a huge factor in RTAs. The WHO says the risks increase the more we drink, that “the risk of incurring a road traffic crash is increased to differing degrees depending on the psychoactive drug used”, and that “the risk of a fatal crash occurring among those who have used amphetamines is about 5 times the risk of someone who hasn’t.”

The WHO says that “correct helmet use can lead to a 42% reduction in the risk of fatal injuries and a 69% reduction in the risk of head injuries”, that “wearing a seat-belt reduces the risk of death among drivers and front seat occupants by 45 – 50%” and “the risk of death and serious injuries among rear seat occupants by 25%”, and “the use of child restraints can lead to a 60% reduction in deaths.”

The modern invention, the cellphone, is considered a major contributor to RTAs. Many people believe that the hands-free phones are safe, but the WHO disagrees. The WHO’s numbers show that drivers using “mobile phones are approximately 4 times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers not using a mobile phone,” and “hands-free phones are not much safer than hand-held phone sets.”

In Belize, every week should be road safety week.  RTAs cost the nation too much. In this festive season, when we will all be a little tired, sleepy after the hustle and bustle during all the Season’s activities, we should all slow down and drive more carefully on the highways.

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Deshawn Swasey

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