President David Granger: Members of the National Road Safety Council, special invitees, school children, members of the media:
This month as you know, we celebrate National Road Safety Month and those of you who read the papers would realise that today’s paper – Guyana Chronicle: “Two died in Corentyne smashup”; yesterday’s paper – “Eleven hurt as truck went off Mahdia road” – so these are in our newspapers even though it is National Road Safety Month.
I think it is bad news that we have started this month in a very depressing way; a very disheartening way. We have seen Tuesday, we have seen Monday, today is Wednesday; let’s hope we have a safe month.
This month should be a month when the nation ponders more than 2,000 of its citizens, who have died since this started in 2000. Many more than 2,000 persons have been injured over the last 15 years so November is a time of the year when it was planned to make our roads safer for our citizens. This event, therefore, is not a celebration of anything, it is a lamentation. We have heard the calculation of the human cost on our roads because of carelessness, as we have seen in the demonstration in these two skits.
As you know, the United Nations launched its Global Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011- 2020, but this all seems to have made little impact on Guyana; the epidemic continues. The Decade of Action launched by the United Nations is intended to provide countries with guidelines to save lives, to prevent injuries, for safe roads, to have more responsible road users, road safety management and the ability to respond to accidents.
Here in Guyana, our own National Road Safety Council followed up on the United Nations lead by launching its National Road Safety Strategy for 2013-2020. We are now in that period, not only in the United Nations Decade, but also in our own National Road Safety Council strategy.
We expected to halve the number of road deaths reduced by 2013 from about 115 to about 58. We are still to see the results of the United Nations Decade. We are still to see the results of our own National Road Safety Council strategy. All of us are involved- as you can see, housewives, business persons, ordinary citizens who continue to break the rules by drinking, by driving under the influence of alcohol and by speeding.
As you have heard already, this morning, the World Health Organisation has pointed out that 1.2 million persons die every year from injuries sustained from road accidents. This works out to a daily death toll of over 3,500 persons every single day. Ninety per cent of global road fatalities take place in low income countries like ours.
Guyana continues to maintain an average of about two accidents every week, two fatal accidents every week. This accounts for the statistics we have been told; for about 100 to 112 fatal accidents every year, between 2000 and last year we had over 2,160 road fatalities. Just imagine over 2,160 Guyanese have died since the start of this new millennium and 262 of those were children; children like you. Guyana has the worst ranking for road fatalities in the English-speaking Caribbean, the average is about 27.8 for every 1,000 persons. In fact, in the entire Western Hemisphere, Guyana ranks 5th in terms of human fatalities.
The Ministry of Public Health published the “National Rehablitation Services Strategy 2009-2013” and the ministry noted that road accidents are among the leading ten contributors of deaths in the country overall, and it was responsible for the single largest number of disability; that is to say, that people are more likely to become disabled as a result of traffic accidents than any other cause in this country.
Survivors of accidents have suffered disabilities and lifelong injuries and maybe it would be a good idea; if it weren’t so bloody and so gruesome, to take some of these school children into the Georgetown Hospital to see what the accident ward looks like. That is the most sobering experience you will have in your life – when you see how people who have suffered traffic accidents and continue to suffer in the hospital and when they go home. In addition to the cost of hospitalisation you have to take into account the cost of medication and the cost of rehabilitation. Thousands have suffered, thousands lose their lives, thousands lose their limbs.
Two months ago in September, when I was at the United Nations, we endorsed what is called the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – Goal Number Three aims to “ensure healthy lives and to promote well-being for all, at all ages”. One of the targets under that goal is halving the number of global deaths and injuries from road accidents by the year 2020. This is a worldwide target to cut the amount of road fatalities by half by the year 2020, which is five years from now.
Guyana is committed; I committed Guyana to achieving that target. This goal is attainable. We must, however, adapt a comprehensive plan to achieve that target and this morning, I want to propose a three-pronged approach to reducing road deaths and injuries.
Enforcement of laws
First of all, we must strengthen our enforcement of the traffic laws. Today you saw a demonstration from our traffic officers; unbribable traffic officers, efficient traffic officers. Traffic laws must be vigorously enforced; laws against distracting music, playing movies, the use of cellular phones while driving must be enforced. Laws against double parking, diagonal parking must be enforced. Laws against drunk driving must be enforced. The even-handed enforcement of our traffic laws will help to promote greater safety on our roads.
The Guyana Police Force has indicated repeatedly – again you saw the graphic demonstration today – that speeding is one of the principal causes of fatal road accidents in this country. There is need to reduce speeding by the police, but there is need for the police to ensure that speeding is reduced by having a more visible presence on our roads and, of course, using the instruments that you saw today – the speed gun and also the breathalyser kits.
We must, however, have more of those machines; more speed guns so that we can record the speed of motorist, not only in and about Georgetown but also out of town, on the country roads. There is a need for more cameras to monitor traffic – again not only in Georgetown, but other areas along the coastland.
Another important risk factor, as you have seen, is driving under the influence of alcohol and this presents a danger not only to the driver but also to other road users. We must move towards prohibiting the sale of intoxicating beverages in and around public transportation terminals, that is at mini bus parks. We must ensure that persons who are about to drive minibuses are not drinking… Don’t wait until they drink and then try to catch them; prevent them from drinking by not having the bars too close to the terminals.
Responses to excessive speeding on the roadways must also include patrolling high risk lanes by day and by night; include enforcing lower speed limits wherever public roads run through popular rural communities, and ensuring that minibuses and other commercial vehicles carry only lawful complement of cargo and passengers. Sometimes when you see a 42 minibus, they believe that they must carry 42 passengers.
The second approach that we must adapt is the approach of education. The need for safety on our roads must be inculcated in all children and road users. I am glad to see so many children here today because this is where the education starts, not when you are fifty-five, but when you are five or fifteen.
There is need for greater education to instruct our people, both drivers and passengers, on the dangers of speeding – particularly drivers of minibuses, of hire cars and taxis and I mention these not because I am singling out a particular group of people, but because they carry human beings. I am very concerned about the loss of life.
Drivers of minibuses, hire cars and taxis must be re-educated and if necessary, re-trained and re-certified so that they can be qualified to be responsible drivers of vehicles with passengers. If you are driving cargo it is fine with me, but if you are driving human beings you must be specially qualified. It happens in the airlines; if you are a commercial pilot, if you are [carrying] passengers onboard your plane then you must have a special licence and I believe that persons who are driving human beings in this country in commercial vehicles must also have special qualifications. They must be sober. They must be responsible. They must not speed. They should not be granted such licence unless they have proven their suitability to holding responsibility for being careful over the lives of their passengers.
Education must be the foremost consideration when certifying vehicles for use on the roadways. Vehicles using our roadways must be certified as safe for the use on our roads. All newly imported vehicles in our country must be subject to safety checks in terms of road worthiness, in particular, I come again – minibuses, hire cars and taxis used for the transportation of human beings, must be inspected rigorously to ensure that they are free of defects.
Consideration must be given – and this is a matter that came out in the Disciplined Forces Commission 11 years ago – consideration must be given to transferring responsibility to certification of vehicles from the hands of the police into the hands of other specialised persons in motor-mechanics. I am repeating here, a recommendation of the Disciplined Forces Commission “…leave the police to enforce the law and allow other mechanics to inspect the vehicles to ensure that they comply with the law”.
Police have a lot of work to do, being deployed along our roadways. They must spend their time fighting crime; what you saw them doing today, and not so much inspecting the vehicles. It is the task of the Police Force to detect traffic offences and to prosecute offenders. Thousands of people have suffered and lost their lives as a result of these accidents and the police have a role to play in ensuring that the vehicles on our roads are safe and the drivers are the fit and proper person to be operating those vehicles on our roadways.
The third approach that I would like to mention today is the issue of engineering and I am glad the Minister of Public Infrastructure is here today. Guyana does not really have highways; Guyana has public roads. Maybe the Soesdyke-Linden Highway could qualify as a highway, but Guyana has public roads, which run through built up areas, run through villages. These public roads run through heavily populated areas, particularly that McDoom, Bagotstown, Eccles roadway. It is not a highway, it is not a speed-way, it is not a moto-circuit.
Our roadways must be made safe, sometimes our rural roadways have many encumbrances such as shipping containers at the side of the road, vendors stands, derelict vehicles and stray dogs. All of these define some roadways and some other areas we find people still drying paddy, we find horse-drawn [carriages], motorcycles, farm animals. So once you have roadways [with these encumbracnes] you find that you have [drivers speeding and] trying to dodge animals…
In certain areas there must be lights, not just traffic lights but there must be lights which illuminate the roadways, particularly around dangerous corners. I remember going to the funeral of three young girls at Philippi on the Corentyne Coast year before the last, in which the driver killed all three of them and he hit down people in three villages before the vehicle was brought to a halt. So if we have poorly lit roadways, poorly marked roadways, then we are going to find that particularly in rural areas, problems of seeing at night, particularly, and these could lead to accidents and death.
On any given day, we find that there is great competition for space on our roadways. Motorists use the roads, bicyclists use the roads, motorcycles use the road, the pedestrians use the roads, vehicles use the roads, dray-carts use the roads and as a result of that we have to start thinking about the types of roads that we have in Guyana, so that our engineers could ensure that the roads are safe.
If you have all of these people using the roads we must make sure that there are sidewalks, what we call pavements. If you have schools you must make sure that there are pedestrian crossings; if we have persons with disabilities, in wheelchairs, we must make sure that there are ramps so that persons can cross the roads in safety.
Engineers have to think about all of these things. Unfortunately sometimes our roads have no markings, our roads have no facilities to allow persons in a wheelchair and other types of vehicles to come and go. The pedestrian crossing is not even illuminated so sometimes you don’t even know that you are on a pedestrian crossing until it is too late. In more advanced countries there are flashing lights so you know when you’re approaching a pedestrian crossing. Road markings fade and they have to be renewed so that all road users are au fait. There should be medians to ensure that persons do not drift into the lane of oncoming traffic as far as possible.
So these are some of the engineering features which we would like to see on our roadsways, particularly in those areas which have become notorious for accidents; in East Berbice-Corentyne where we had some of our most horrific accidents – the village of Philippi, which I told you about. West Coast Berbice also has had lots of deahts. East Demerara, West Demerara and of course the Linden-Soesdyke Highway – many of these areas have had horrific accidents, not forgetting the Essequibo Islands-West Demerara area around Ruby people like to speed in that area.
These roads originally were ordinary public roads running though villages, and if you put a red pin into every place there is a fatal accident, you would see that they form clusters in very heavily inhabitated villages. So this is something we must be careful about and engineers must ensure that there are safe passages for pedestrians and other road users.
So ladies and gentlemen, children, we are now starting Road Safety Month and as I pointed out the headlines are bad. So let us try to make November 2015 a fatality-free month, at least from today, the 4th . We have already started, we’ve had two fatalities in this month and as I pointed out we have been having two fatalities per week for several years – let it stop now. Let November be the time when we make a vow to make our roads safe.
I would like to call on you all, all Guyanese to consider the key points that I have mentioned; Enforcement, Education, and Engineering so that we can reduce the high incidents of road deaths. We can’t afford to lose any more of you. We need you to grow up. We need you to take control of this country. We need to work together; the police are not alone, citizens, Road Safety Council, the corporate community, the government, we all have to work together to reduce fatalities.
We can no longer afford to lose so many young lives. We can no longer afford to pay for the prohibitive cost of hospitalisation. We can no longer afford to pay the cost of so much damage and destruction on our roadways. This is the time, November 2015, to bring order and sanity onto our roads. We must, from today, make a conscious decision to change the culture of road use in Guyana. We face many challenges, but we must demonstrate the willpower to do so if we are to succeed in reducing the number of deaths and injuries as the result of accidents.
I believe we can do it.