Mon | Feb 19, 2018

Kelly McIntosh | New traffic law not enough

Published:Friday | February 9, 2018 | 12:49 AM
McIntosh

So the Lower House finally passed the Road Traffic Bill 2016, which replaces the Road Traffic Act of 1938. With some 131 amendments, this new bill is supposed to create stiffer sanctions for drivers who break the road code and should, therefore, in theory, result in safer, more orderly roads, and fewer accidents and fatalities. If only.

No doubt, the 1938 Road Traffic Act needed to be updated. But I hope we all realise that legislation, by itself, is never going to be enough to fix problems. The answer to societal ills is not necessarily the passage of new laws or harsher penalties. In Jamaica, the issue is not a paucity of laws to prevent littering or illegal dumping or creating third lanes in traffic or making illegal right turns.

We have laws that tell us that child abuse and domestic violence are wrong. Yet daily, children are abused and women are battered and killed. We have laws that define statutory rape and laws that prohibit the taking of another person's property. Yet our courts are jam-packed and new offenders are added to a growing list daily. So what’s the answer?

In his book ‘To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others’, Daniel Pink tells an interesting story about errant taxi drivers in Kenya and how they were effectively dealt with. According to Pink, there are matatu in Kenya, 14-seater minivans that much of the travelling public take to get from Point A to Point B. Think Jamaican robot taxis.

The matatu drivers allegedly drive like bats out of hell, adhering to a code that applies to them and them alone, as if the public roads are their own private racetrack. Sounds familiar? Kenya, incidentally. has one of the highest per-capita rates of traffic deaths in the world. So Kenya has enacted a raft of legislation aimed at tackling the most egregious violations of basic road safety with a view to changing the driving habits of the matatu operators and reducing road fatalities: seat belt laws, speed limits, drunk-driving legislation, and so on.

On paper, these laws should result in lower infractions and, therefore, fewer fatalities. But here is the rub: They are only effective when enforced. And enforcement demands resources, something that is not in unlimited supply in a country like Kenya.

Laws exist for a purpose: to create order and safety and equity. So with this endgame in mind, not a single one of us should breathe a sigh of relief and say "job well done" when new laws are passed. Laws are only effective when they are enforced.  So in a context where resources are limited and consistent and transparent enforcement of existing and even new legislation does not happen, what is the solution?

Let's go back to the matatu drivers in Kenya.

Two economists from Georgetown University, in a social experiment of sorts found a way to influence the drivers' behaviour that was independent of existing legislation. Pink details the experiment in his book, but essentially what worked was the engagement of another set of stakeholders in the equation. In those matatu minivans that were outfitted in the interior with prominent stickers exhorting passengers to speak out and speak up when the driver engaged in illegal and dangerous driving, the incidence of accidents and insurance claims significantly plunged!

Now I am not saying that more outspoken passengers in our public transportation system here in Jamaica will fix our errant taxi drivers. The point I am seeking to make is that legislation by itself will not save us and our focus should be more in the vein of understanding what drives us as a people, why we act the way we do, and, therefore, finding ways to change behaviour, not limited solely to punitive measures that exist only on paper.
We need to understand the drivers of human behaviours in our particular social context and address these in ways aimed at fixing root causes and, therefore, changing outcomes. Legislation is but one tool in our arsenal, and totally ineffective when enforcement is absent. Even with the best will in the world (and I am yet to be convinced that we possess the political will for enforcement without fear or favour), enforcement is only possible when resources are in abundance.

Mightn't a better approach focus on understanding behaviour and seeking to change this via different methods including incentives, creating a sense of purpose, engaging and enlisting more stakeholders in addition to the disincentive that punitive measures offer? 

Commitment always goes further than compliance. Compliance requires constant policing and is expensive. We don't have it.

- Kelly McIntosh is a procurement manager. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and kkmac218@gmail.com.