New Road Scholarship: nothing for nothing
For me, the formula is simple. If you are seeking rights or privileges, you ought to take the responsibilities that come with them. That is the essence of maturity and adulthood.
Last week, we got a double whammy from the Ministry of Housing, Transport and Works, under whose jurisdiction traffic and transport and the National Works Agency (NWA) fall, and, if we are not careful, many more of us will do likewise.
The long-threatened amendments to the Road Traffic Act have now been incarnated into a bill, in every sense of the word, and drivers are going to have to step up, dip in and pay up. First, the misnomered minister without portfolio, Dr Morais Guy, announced that the discretion that the statute gave to an errant driver who 'forgot' his driver's licence will be rescinded. If passed, the act will now require that drivers keep this little piece of laminated paper on their person as long as they are in control of the deadly weapon called a motor vehicle.
It is not such a hair-brained scheme because it is consistent with the provision within several jurisdictions, including the USA. Indeed, whenever I visit that country, I get so paranoid that I shower with mine affixed to the wrist with a black tie-strap.
Failing to produce it when requested by the police, will lead to a J$2,000 fine. Now, for all my absent-mindedness, I fully appreciate the need to carry one's licence on one's person. It is akin to a firearm holder always having his documents on him. After all, how will the police know that a) you are who you say you are, and b) that you are not carrying an illegal gun? Similarly, therefore, given that there are indeed drivers who have never gone into an examination depot nor have any papers except stale editions of The Gleaner, the amendment could go a far way in weeding them out.
Nevertheless, a responsible government must provide an ultra-efficient, up-to-date, portable system in which the on-site policeman can plug in and immediately retrieve, current information.
Yet more disturbing is the apparent seriousness of the government in attempting to recover damages for the damage created to road infrastructure and furnishings, ostensibly because of negligence of road users. In principle, I agree with the idea.
After all, if a man, 'driving under the influence', or simply being careless, crashes into your wall, mows down your hedge and kills your kitty cat on your lawn, he must dig deep into his thread bag and compensate. That is a sound principle in law. One does not even have to show negligence; it can simply be misadventure such as his front end malfunctioning and leading him to where he was staring. Simply put, one is legally liable for any harm that one causes to reach another individual or his property.
However, if the same person had let his female dog out, and the bitch frightens a cat, thus causing the driver to swerve, the dog's owner can be said to have participated in the process that led to his injury. And if that unleashed dog chases me, bites me on the thigh and I use my broomstick to permanently incapacitate her, the owner can't jump up and tell me that I must give him money for his loss.
Government has a responsibility to its citizens to protect them, or at a minimum, refrain from doing things that will lead to their harm. Given that the average citizen is obligated to pay taxes, so that Government can provide infrastructure, it must maintain its roads and furnishings at levels that will not prejudice the users of the road.
Thus, I must be confident in walking along any rural footbridges that I will not fall through the flooring. Nor should my suspension be jarred out of its joints because of poor road surfaces or potholes. There is many a story about pregnant women miscarrying because of plunging into potholes. Nevertheless, as we talk of compensation, the minister would not dare suggest personally replacing such losses.
Three years ago, Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee, University of the West Indies lecturer and director of the Mona GeoInformatics Institute, observed that large numbers of road crashes and fatalities are caused by poor road conditions. Some of these have to do with the unsuitable or inferior design of roads, including improper 'hydraulics', whereby water does not correctly drain, leading to deterioration of surfaces and potholes. In the past, the Public Works Department had a hydraulics section, with engineers, who meticulously pored over road designs, to address these issues.
More than 10 per cent of road-factor crashes are pothole-related. Veteran engineer Robert Evans noted, "The damage accrued by potholes on a busy road can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars per day when burst tyres, brakes, fuel, oil and front-end parts are taken into consideration when the driver either makes contact or tries to avoid the pothole. This same pothole would cost up to J$20,000 to fix initially."
Attorney Kent Gammon has noted that it might be possible to sue the Government under the Crown Proceedings, the National Solid Waste Management and Parish Council Acts. Despite contending opinions, one can imagine the difference between simply fixing a flaw and the legal battle later.
Finally, without meeting with the toll operators, Transport Minister Omar Davies believes that he can make the case that his well-needed plan to add two lanes to the Mandela Highway will increase traffic flow 'to' Highway 2000 rather than deflect 'from' that corridor. Honestly, I don't see why anyone who willingly bears the traffic bottlenecks on Mandela to avoid the $180 toll will be inclined to now change routes when they ease. I pray that, counterintuitively, he is right because I read the agreement our Government signed; and if he is wrong, we will owe multimillions to these foreigners.
But as I said, nothing for nothing.
- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the 2013-14 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. His just-published book, 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is now available at the UWI Bookshop. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.