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THE NEXT 50 YEARS - Moving towards greater road safety

Published:Saturday | January 5, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Several persons were taken to the hospital after a Jamaica Urban Transit Company bus and a car collided at the intersection of Hanover and Charles streets in downtown Kingston in July. - File
A motor-vehicle crash on Mandela Highway earlier this year. - File
Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee

Jamaica continues to celebrate 50 years of Independence. We have achieved a lot. However, there is much work left to be done if we are to progress as a country. We must begin to tackle Jamaica's chronic problems in a targeted and sustained way, to make this country a better place to live, work and grow families. The Next 50 Years, a special Gleaner series, will spotlight some of the challenges we must fix in the coming years. We want to hear from you. Email us at editor@gleanerjm.com and join the debate.

Parris Lyew-Ayee, Jr, Contributor

AS JAMAICA began to chart its own destiny as an independent nation, it became responsible for ensuring the safety of its citizens while developing transportation infrastructure and assets. Road safety in Jamaica has evolved over the past 50 years.

Globally, nearly one million people die each year in motor-vehicle crashes, with many more being seriously injured. Eastern European countries account for the most fatalities per one million population - led by Latvia - with more than 200 fatalities per one million people. Jamaica has roughly 110 fatalities per one million people. The United States, the world's largest automobile market and with the largest number of road users in the world, had nearly 33,000 road fatalities in 2010.

Innovations incorporating both technology and legislation to reduce crashes and improve road safety have emerged. They range from seat belts - made mandatory in Jamaica in 1999 - to airbags and anti-lock braking systems. There are innovations that will altogether prevent crashes from occurring in the first place. They include systems such as the V2V or the V2X - vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems - which provide, among other things, collision- avoidance systems using radar, blind-spot detection systems and advance warning of vehicles braking ahead. Notwithstanding the impressive advances in technology, "the past 50 years have been about surviving vehicle crashes; the next 50 years will be about preventing them" (US Department of Transportation).

Over the past 50 years, the road-safety situation in Jamaica has seen mixed progress. On one hand, as vehicles have become safer, coupled with increased awareness and successive generations growing up in a vehicle-centric transportation culture, fatality rates, in particular, have been trending downwards. On the other hand, with an increase in the numbers of cars on the road, the probabilities of a crash occurring are higher.

Data collected by the National Road Safety Council over the past 20 years have shown a fairly consistent downward trend: from a rate of 18.5 fatalities per 100,000 population, to just over 11 per 100,000 population in 2011. Eritrea has the highest rate, with over 48 fatalities per 100,000 population, while developed countries such as Japan (3.85) and the United Kingdom (3.59) have much lower rates. In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago (15.5) and The Bahamas (14.5) have higher rates than Jamaica.

Improvements in road design such as where major roads have been built to accommodate increased traffic loads over the past 50 years, have also contributed to improved driving conditions. However, much of the older road stock has deteriorated from a lack of maintenance. Many roads are designed with a life expectancy of between 10 and 20 years between major resurfacing, but many of Jamaica's roads have deteriorated in a shorter period because of overloading and the activities of utility companies. Other destructive processes have been both passive - drainage run-off, though this can be exacerbated by poor construction and design of driveways which access the roads - and active processes such as when there is heavy rainfall and landsliding.

Based on an analysis of over 74,000 crashes, drivers account for nearly 90 per cent of all crashes in Jamaica. Causes include distracted driving - cellular-phone use; passenger distractions, or cargo problems; reckless driving - speeding, overtaking, tailgating, improper exiting from a side road, and other forms of dangerous driving; and impaired driving - alcohol use, fatigue, etc. The inconsiderate acts of other drivers - headlight glare, stopping without warning or at improper locations - are also contributing factors.

Pedestrians account for the next highest number - just under five per cent - of crashes. Pedestrian victims of crashes are either directly to blame because they stepped into oncoming traffic, or improperly used the roadway, or are victims of other conditions such as obstructions on the sidewalk, or sidewalks which are missing entirely.

3 per cent of crashes fatal

Fatal crashes account for roughly three per cent of all crashes, while property-only damage crashes, in which no injuries were reported, account for nearly 75 per cent.

All crashes have economic impacts which ripple through the society. The direct and indirect costs of crashes are wide-ranging. Injurious crashes require immediate medical treatment; the severe ones may require lifelong care and therapy, not to mention lost wages and family burdens. Property-only crashes may include costs to repair vehicles, but also road infrastructure such as signage and lights, or to property infrastructure such as walls and fences.

The indirect costs of crashes would range from the secondary impacts of a damaged street sign affecting road safety for other drivers and security risks for persons whose walls have been damaged, to time lost in traffic caused by a crash. Here, costs are almost impossible to calculate, though not difficult to imagine.

Tailgating accounts for nearly 20 per cent of all crashes. Speeding is the fifth leading cause of crashes, accounting for six per cent of the total number of crashes. While speeding is not the leading cause of crashes in Jamaica, it is the leading cause of fatal crashes. Just over 20 per cent of all fatal crashes is attributed to speeding. Distracted-driving crashes can be expected to increase over the next few decades.

Jamaica's National Road Safety Policy (National Road Safety Council, 2004) recognises the complex and multi-disciplinary focus of road safety: road safety is beyond fatalities, and beyond any single government ministry, road safety affects transport infrastructure, law enforcement, the health services, and business productivity. Critically, the policy advocates a multi-sectoral approach to both defining and addressing the problem of road safety in Jamaica. It is crystallised around a five 'E's strategy for the reduction and prevention of crashes:

1. Engineering and traffic environment;

2. Education and information;

3. Enforcement and legislation;

4. Emergency response;

5. Evaluation and comprehensive actions.

All of these strategies are critical for the next 50 years.

As vehicular designs, road engineering, and traffic management evolved with technological advances over the past 50 years, and can be expected to do so over the next 50, so should the other road stakeholders, particularly the human ones. This is where education and enforcement have become critical in road safety. Both emphasise prevention, which would be manifested as reductions in road-crash statistics, but would require fundamental changes to many aspects of the present condition. Everything ranging from driving tests and vehicle-examination procedures should adapt human behavioural measures to account and adjust for human errors on the part of drivers, examiners, and enforcers.

Road-safety campaigns should also account for human behaviour, particularly in educating pedestrians and other incidental road users. They also need to utilise more data and analyses in the preparation of policies, especially where a wider context is required.

Urban areas have more crashes than rural areas, while rural areas have more fatal crashes. Different roads are designed differently, and sensible speed limits should be developed, something advocated in the National Road Safety Policy.

Blanket policies should be discouraged, and new, smart educational and enforcement policies developed, accounting for the wide variability of vehicle types, road conditions, and the realities of geography and locations across Jamaica.

Through all of this, the need for data is critical. Data for the first few decades of Jamaica's Independence were scattered and non-standardised. More recent data are simply figures that are used to generate descriptive statistics. The next few years will require a more efficient and streamlined manner of collecting the data in near-real time, leading to a system that will inform the next few decades' road-safety policies, which will include methods of forecasting and projecting crashes, and the implementation of technologies that will both passively and actively prevent crashes from occurring in the first place.

Driver education will be improved and better meshed with improved vehicle-safety equipment, and this will be coupled with improved general road-safety education, which will incorporate non-drivers more inclusively.

Practically all Jamaicans are road users in one way or another, and all will stand to benefit from these improvements.

Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee is head of the Department of Geography and Geology at the University of the West Indies' Faculty of Science and Technology.