Road rage

Oyeyemi PHOTO:

Oyeyemi<br />PHOTO:

The Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) seems to be doing a good job of trying to curb the madness on our roads and reduce preventable fatalities. They are quite visible on many of our highways and cities trying to deal with difficult motorists. It is a difficult job because many stubborn motorists are likely to tell them, “Do you know who I am?” when they are caught pants down. And, if you want to know, they are not Muhammadu Buhari. That is the Nigerian way.

The statistics of accidents and deaths given by FRSC will never be accurate because lots of fatal accidents occur in various parts of the country that are not captured by the radar of the FRSC. We can, therefore, assume that more people actually die from careless driving than we will ever know. Even what we know is alarming enough not because of the number but because human lives are lost.

Recently, two accidents have caught the attention of the public because they have been widely reported. They were widely reported because they are those we call “big men” whose deaths have invariably drawn attention to the fact that we are not nearly careful enough in our daily lives. James Ocholi, a famous lawyer and minister of state for Labour and Employment, his wife and son lost their lives in one fell swoop on the Abuja–Kaduna highway. Mr. Ocholi’s driver and the security man who were also in the car survived the crash and are being treated for injuries they received.

The second accident involved a major-general of the Nigerian Army, Yasha’u Abubakar, who died in a car crash on the Maiduguri – Damaturu Road. The nation has been appropriately mourning these losses but I am not sure whether we are ready to learn the lessons since these two are not the only high profile deaths on our roads. Many had gone that way before these two incidents.

On the Ocholi case, the FRSC Corps Marshall, Boboye Oyeyemi, has indicated that the driver, James Elegbede, was on an excessive speed at the time of the accident and did not have a valid driving licence. The report also says, “The ejection of the Minister, his wife and his son who occupied the rear seats confirmed the fact that their rear seat belts were not in use and on the contrary the driver and the orderly survived because the front seat belts were in use.”

Most cars today have several features meant to enhance the safety of the passengers. Such features include airbags, fog clearers, speed warnings and seat belts. However, most car owners or drivers refuse to do even the basic things that can save their lives – the seat belt, for example. Many people in Nigeria rake up all kinds of reasons why they should not use seat belts: they say seat belts should not be used when sitting in front because airbags will do the job if there is an accident. They also say that seat belts are not supposed to be used in the back seat even though the car makers have wisely provided them. Researches done on seat belts indicate that between 75 and 80 per cent of lives have been saved by seat belts usage during accidents. Some passengers complain that seat belts put pressure on their stomachs thus inconveniencing them. If that is the case, shouldn’t they reduce the size of their stomachs instead of putting themselves in a situation where an accident can reduce the size of their families?

Most eminent men and women in Nigeria do not use seat belts. Do all the state governors use seat belts? Probably not, simply because they think that nothing can go wrong since they have siren, outriders and escort cars that drive other motorists into the bush before their convoys arrive. Though the convoys of these high calibre men have had accidents several times they still drive at a devil-may-care speed. A few years ago, Tafa Balogun, who was the Inspector General of Police, then had an accident. I went to sympathise with him. His hand was in a sling. I asked him whether he used his seat belt when the accident occurred. He told me, “Frankly, no.” I knew he was not the only eminent person who spurns the idea of strapping himself up the way armed robbers were tied to the stakes many years ago. However, like it or not, believe it or not, seat belts save lives.

Apart from engaging in excessive speed, Ocholi’s driver had no valid driving licence. Many drivers enjoy the thrill of speed but they forget that speed also kills. The reason the driver didn’t bother about updating his driving licence is that he is driving an important man and no one will dare stop him. In fact, the road safety people will clear the road for him to pass. I doubt whether they check government vehicles for compliance with traffic requirements. I doubt it very much.

Ocholi was probably reading a newspaper, listening to music, watching a video or simply having an intimate family conversation with his wife and son. That would be why he did not notice that the driver was over speeding. If he noticed it, he probably would have cautioned him to drive at a sane speed. Most people leave their drivers to do the job alone. I don’t since I know my driver loves to speed, and if I don’t watch him, things can go wrong. This does not apply to private cars only. It is even more important when you are in a molue or danfo or a taxi.

Some years ago, I was driving on a busy street in Lagos. All of a sudden a danfo driver surfaced from nowhere at top speed and brushed my car on the right side. We both came down. I asked him why he wanted to overtake from the right. I thought he would offer an apology. Instead, he shouted at me, “If no be say you be mature man I for sound (slap) you now.” I responded in impeccable pidgin English: “If you no sound me now you no ko go nowhere.” The purpose of my statement was to let him know that I too understand the language of the street and was ready to rumble with him. A policeman appeared from the shadows and shouted at him to apologise to me because he was wrong. I asked his passengers why they would keep quiet while the man was driving so recklessly and putting their lives at risk. They, instead, told me to go away. From these incidents, you can see that passengers in private or commercial vehicles do not take much interest in their safety. They leave the driver severely alone even if he is driving dangerously.

Many Nigerians, who can afford them, buy jeeps or SUVs. A jeep is an imposing car, a symbol of your arrival at the port of opulence. You may need a ladder to climb it but it doesn’t matter. The interior is surreal, filled with all kinds of luxury items, radio, video, refrigerator etc. when you approach the gate of any house in a jeep the security man opens the gate wide without questions because the big size of your car tells him that you are an eminent man. However, a jeep also has its down side. It has a high clearance from the ground and so its equilibrium is destabilised at high speed. Apart from anything else, this is what may have happened to Ocholi’s Lexus SUV.

There are several other causes of road accidents; poor car maintenance, drinking and driving or driving and drinking, driving and telephoning, poor visibility during the rains or harmattan, driver’s poor judgment, bad roads or good roads (which tempt people to fly on land), animals crossing the roads, poor or no road signs, fake driving licences, etc. All of these factors contribute significantly to the high rate of accidents on our roads. The important thing to note here is that these factors can be remedied by several people working together: drivers, car owners, passengers, driving schools, licensing authorities, road safety workers, employment agencies, traffic wardens, policemen, government officials. If everyone does his own bit, accidents can be considerably curbed.

However, I believe that stiffer penalties ought to be imposed on certain driving violations. Vehicle licence violation and over speeding attract a fine of only N3000 each while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs costs the culprit only N5000. A fine of N50,000 for dangerous driving seems adequate but are these fines ever paid or a fraction of that is simply tossed into the palms of the arresting officer and all is forgiven?

Sometime ago, the Lagos State government toyed with the idea of seizing and crushing the cars of people involved in certain serious traffic violations. If they carried that out, they would have reduced the population of cars in Lagos by half. Nevertheless, that seemed to be too severe a penalty for whatever traffic offence anybody would commit. The government has come up with a more creative way of creating sanity in transportation in Lagos. If you commit certain serious traffic violations, you are arrested and sent to a mental hospital for examination. You are required to pay for that procedure which punches a huge hole in your pocket. You then also carry the stigma of having been tested for mental illness. This seems to be a master stroke because no sane person wants to be seen at a place where insane people live. I guess that this drastic step is appropriate for a city like Lagos where order has been turned on its head. Maybe other cities can try the procedure too.

I think, however, that governments—federal, state, and local—ought to set a better example for other motorists. The convoys of various governments drive at a staggering speed which is why many of them have had very serious accidents that have taken the lives of their convoy members. How can government officials be preaching the sermon of sane driving if they cannot get government officials to obey traffic regulations and set a good example for other road users.

If you talk about overspeeding, it is government officials who are the most guilty. FRSC officials cannot arrest the situation except they are able to extract some measure of compliance from government officials. The current road rage is compounded by the poor example that government officials show. I hope the FRSC officials can pluck up courage and tell them: physician, heal thy self.

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