Our “New Normal” Is A Public Health Threat: Road Traffic Accidents and It’s Killing us

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An open Letter to the Minister of Transport and current Chairman of the Ministerial Council of Robert Flight Information Region (RFIR), Hon. Samuel A Wlue; Liberia’s Inspector General of Police, Hon. Patrick Toe Sudue; and Dr. Nathaniel T. Blama, Sr., Executive Director Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia

By Alfred Wreh

Dear Sirs:

On 30 October, I woke up for another research day at 6.45am and switched my alarm off. My phone rang a couple of moments later and it was another news that had it not been for God would have changed my life forever.

A distressing image came up on my phone. I asked who is that? Is everyone ok,’ yes everyone is fine,’ she said. ‘What, what’s wrong then?’ she replied, ‘It’s Dr. K, your brother as I affectionately call him, He had an accident.’ Ok, I replied, ‘Is he ok, is he still alive?’ ‘yes dear, he’s at the hospital’, this was kind of relieving and I asked them to make sure doctors diagnostic imaging tests X-ray was completed to determine any suspected underlying medical problem associated with the internal bleeding especially giving the trauma from the impact. ‘When I was told my vision-impaired brother had an accident, I crumbled to the floor and howled, when will this public health threat of road traffic accidents end? The worst would have changed my life. Thanks to the doctors who responded within the golden hour.

So, it is with a huge degree of frustration and desperation with which I write this letter. If experience is anything to go by I will not expect the courtesy of an answer, or even an acknowledgement, however I would be happy just to have you read and take note of the concerns expressed.

On October 28, 2018, our government announced its plan to tackle poverty and grow our economy by ensuring prosperity for all. According to the drafters, specifically on road infrastructure it is stated “The national road network forms the backbone of Liberia’s transportation system and plays a critical role in socio-economic development. Liberia has approximately 11,536 kilometres (km) of primary, secondary, urban and feeder roads. These comprise about 1,899, 2,479 and 6,263 km of unpaved primary, secondary and feeder roads respectively. Approximately 622 km of the total are paved roads. Liberia has 2,884 bridges and 7,651 culverts, but approximately half of the bridges and one-quarter of the culverts are in poor condition, limiting accessibility during the rainy season. Only 15 percent of bridges and half of the culverts are in excellent or good condition”. This was stated with no measures for addressing road traffic accidents (RTAs).

When the past government installed traffic lights in the capital for the first time since the 1990 civil war in 2013. I cautioned then that the lights will not help regulate traffic and reduce the accident rate either. Installing the lights is one thing, but behaviour change is another.

Recent reports by the media including social media have highlighted this public health concern which is all too common, and what I’ve stated years ago, Liberia has a calamitous road safety problem. Public health experts describe this as an epidemic. Do you know what is an epidemic?

According to the latest WHO report published in 2017, there are 50 causes of death and Road Traffic Accident Deaths in Liberia reached 1,585 or 4.51% of total deaths. Road Traffic Accident is the 8th cause of death, one step behind HIV/AIDS and more fatal than Kidney Disease, Liver Cancer, Suicide, Alzheimer’s/Dementia, Heart disease, Anaemia and other illnesses combined. According to the Chief of Traffic at the Liberia National Police, ACP Alphonso D. Binda as of 2007-2018, a total of 14,505 road accident cases were reported, that more than 300% increase in Ebola deaths with Montserrado, Margibi and Grand Bassa counties ranking among the 15 counties in Liberia, this data is not accessible via the police crime statistics website. Nonetheless, this means Liberia ranks #4 in the world with more than more than 1,000 people killed in truck crashes. The Pro poor agenda approach focus should not be roads, roads, roads, rather the core focus should be tackling this issue of safety that is very alarming. We must treat safety with the same emergency as Ebola.

The number of fatal and disabling road accidents happenings are increasing day by day and is a real public health challenge, but also statutory responsibilities for institutions to prevent it.

Liberia is also a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its Optional Protocol which seek to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity. Then there’s Liberia National Commission on Disabilities whose officials were suspended but was on March 2, 2018 with immediate effect reinstated.

The approach to reinstating these officials is laudable but the non-involvement of Persons with Disabilities in the crafting and implementation of policies, rules and regulations in the case of transport and safety to prevent road accidents has been ineffective, half-hearted and violates the CRPD and other human rights conventions while it also undermines the objectives of the Pro poor agenda. The creation and implementation of strict sustainable traffic rules and scientific engineering measures are the need of the hour if the PAPD is to prevent this public health catastrophe and lift the vulnerable segments of our society out of poverty. Can you lift the dead out of poverty?

From all indication, it seems this Public Health Threat of Road Traffic Accidents has become our “new normal” and it’s killing us. Sirs, not a day passes without RTA happening on our roads in which countless number of citizens are killed or disabled. Every so often, whole family are wiped out and those who are affected or killed are mostly young people who should be kept safe while contributing to the growth of the economy and development of our country. The maximum fatalities and injuries are borne disproportionately by the disabled and other poor citizens, as they are mostly pedestrians and passengers of “Leg 2”, “Taxis”, “Pem-pem” and “Keh keh”.

From my perspective, I have said repeatedly that why Liberia does have a political problem, it’s not as grave as our scientific and educational innovation problems. There are many experts reports out there on what needs to be done to improve road safety. Have you read any?

As I’ve stated Liberia tops global list of fatalities from road crashes as the fourth in the world, this situation is exacerbated by poor planning, enforcement of traffic laws and myopic policies on the part of you our policy makers. It even more an alarming trend on our major highways, Monrovia – Nimba, Monrovia – Robertsfield, Monrovia – Bo waterside which derives from reckless driving, not obeying traffic rules, poor driving education attitudes, poor maintenance and road worthiness among others.

As a family member of a survivor with disability who is now in hospital and friend to others who passed on, we suffer adverse social, physical, and psychological effects. If these trends continue, the number of citizens killed and injured on our roads will rise by 2023 and will be the major cause of death than Ischaemic heart disease and stroke the world’s biggest killers or Influenza and Pneumonia our principal killer.

Regarding your departments’ performance over the last decade, we see several ineffectiveness, ineffectiveness that is shocking, hazardous and wasteful. Our inexcusable accident rate is by far the most glaring indictment requiring immediate solutions, solutions not at the desks or based on titles but concrete actions.

I write to you to as a family of a survivor, friend of victims, an Environmental Sustainability Researcher, Circular Economist, Environmentalist and a Concerned citizen. I’ve researched roads infrastructure extensively, and I am an environmentalist too.

I make this proposition to you from a sustainability perspective regarding this important matter on what must be done to improve safety on our roads and keep our people safe, especially the blind and other disabled persons. Road deaths are preventable. There are range of effective road safety interventions that must be explored using scientific system approach to road safety, not political which is essential to tackle the problem, one that entails far more than ‘political will’ with focus on the incentives, motives, and psychological aspect of other stakeholders to pursue and bring about change.

To do this, you must begin by addressing these critical areas.

Let’s begin with road traffic, the “Drive safe” campaign that emerges every festive season with a net result of more deaths every year. At what point, will you realize that the approach is archaic? Often during the festive season we hear the adage “speed kills”, but wait, speed does not kill, it’s the abrupt stop that kills your citizens, I know that this sounds somehow disdainful, and I am by no means taking this issue lightly since the accident of my younger brother, but what stops moving objects, all moving objects with internal combustion engine that’s brakes!!!!

From 2013 the new 10 -25 Year Rule became commonplace, a policy on imposition of. Punitive Tariff on the importation of used motor vehicles more than ten years old took effect. Perhaps next time you are attending the launch of a road safety campaign with the usual media coverage, perhaps you could take the time to see how 20-year-old Nissan and 1998 Toyota Corolla are still being used as public transport. Who’s monitoring compliance?

First start with the basics, develop a driving road rule and introduce road rules test before granting license. In Liberia, anyone, I mean just any can drive a vehicle. We are yet to have a consistent testing of drivers and evaluation vehicle work and rest hours, no character checks either. Safety and compliance start with clarity of the rules, it starts with implementing and doing simple thing like accruing professional driving hours from an approved and accredited driving school. No one should drive any vehicle, pem-pem, or keh-keh if they haven’t been tested. Period. That’s the first rule of safety.

On the issue of vehicles roadworthiness, how are these vehicles roadworthy, how do the operators obtain their certificates of roadworthiness before selling, buying or receiving license plates? How? I understand the PAPD seeks to create one million job in five years, effective road safety is a practice that can create jobs for vocational education graduates in mechanical engineering or even university graduates, it is a booming industry, while your various departments for coordination lay back and do nothing. So right at the very beginning disrespect for the law begin with you the regulator and hence this nuisance of multiple deaths daily. As far as I can remember, there are no vehicle testing stations that issue Roadworthy and Safety Certificates, to change the trend you need certified vehicle examiners and approved testing stations that are regulated and coordinated. If you have people in these roles and they are not performing, you have responsibilities to effectively confront poor performance, it’s not about perception rather it’s about reimagination. Because poor performances often go unaddressed for long periods in our policy arena, as too often it does, it has become a national threat which has manifested itself into a situation that is out of control and killing those you seek to lead. Do something! Set up effective performance management system which creates a harmonious and productive workplace which is beneficial for both government and your employees to achieve programmatic objectives.

Regarding vision-impaired citizens and inclusion of persons with disabilities, traveling is one of the major challenges they face, personally I know this because I’ve lived with my brother who has been living independently for decades. Due to the fact he doesn’t drive and have poor vision, various aspects of travel are indeed harder. The biggest challenge here is tussling for public transport with abled and sighted individuals. It gets tricky traveling across different destinations. Clearly, some destinations are impossible during peak hours to get to via taxi, they must walk. Unfortunately, there is no “Deaf-Blind Pedestrians” sign, the few traffic lights which are available remain ineffective and don’t make sound either are also major problems for anyone with a vision impairment  or who is deaf when crossing the street, particularly on a cloudy day when the road is dark and it’s hard for drivers to see on the other side, that’s how my brother got knocked down, thanks to the driver who didn’t flee from the scene which is also normal, there are no tactile street signs to assist citizens and visitors who are blind or have other form of impairments to move around our city safely. Is that how to create a more inclusive and accessible city for everyone?

Concerning Drunk Driving Fatalities, we hear often don’t drink and drive and that’s it. The ministry of transport and the police do nothing beyond the rhetoric. Is there a policy on how many hours drivers can drive? What constitutes a workday driving hour that would be illegal to drunk driving or driving fatigue? Who monitors the drivers? Most drivers drive more than 18 hours daily leaving only 5 to 6 hours of rest in a 24-hour period, do you understand the resulting in the physiological equivalent of a blood alcohol concentration? That’s about 0.05 blood alcohol concentration, an enormous 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 milliliters of blood. If you do not accept drunk driving, it’s also illegal to accept fatigued driving.

Further, most drivers do not know the maximum speed limit whether it’s within the city, school zones or highway. That’s why we have increasing fatalities mainly along the highways resulting in devastating outcome for the drivers and pedestrians. There’s a need for speed limit education.

It is time for honest scientific approach to vehicle regulation and licensing. A regulatory system which specify what is required before obtaining a license to drive safely, a system that would mean that licenses are cancel based on offenses and violations. If the pro poor agenda is truly meant to lift people out of poverty this should be a strategy employed to attract new drivers, punish incompetent drivers while contributing and improving the driving professional while keeping citizens safe.

Whatever path or strategy you seek to employ, it’s worth noting that our people are dying and it’s time to employ scientific innovation and inspiration and apply them to road safety. No one is above the law, develop them, respect them and others will follow.

Secondly, all equipment with engines must go through a testing and licensing system and should demonstrate safety and capability before they can operate. Liberia is indeed an unusual country, where license can be obtained once you pay the required fees and walk to the ministry of transport, no road rules test, no fitness test, no character test, no maintenance certificate, how can you ensure safety and understand what compliance looks like in such a system?

Thirdly, we must rethink the causes of this road trauma, it’s a national epidemic and we must share the blame. The “don’t drink and drive” campaign isn’t working any more, this is because it’s based on reductionism. This means artificially isolating or reducing fatalities during festive seasons while abandoning the broader regulatory environment once that period elapsed. It’s about time you harness the opportunity to ensure that drivers are educated on driving safely and licensing arrangements.

Additionally, by engaging the right policy process through scientific innovation as a means of achieving the PAPD, Transport and the Police can incentivize and reward safe behaviors, stamp duty fees and registration waivers could be offered for improved safety records, this would then encourage sustainable transport. That’s community engagement!!! Have you heard about this before? The average age of Liberian commercial vehicles are 15 years. According to USAID Climate factsheet, “Liberia emitted 17 million metric tons (MtCO2e) in 2012, with the land-use change and forestry sector contributing 90 percent to overall emissions, followed by the waste sector emitting 4 percent and the agriculture sector emitting 3 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions increased 4 percent from 1990 – 2012, with an average annual change in total emissions of zero percent. Liberia’s carbon intensity in 2012 was almost 17 times the world average, giving substantial potential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions”. However, it failed to state that Motor vehicles are the major source of urban air pollution. Motor vehicle emissions will continue to increase over time from road dust, brake wear and tyre wear particles if nothing is done. These emissions increase directly with traffic volume. Regrettably, these are major source of pollution problem. The EPA has regulatory responsibilities to minimize these negative impacts on Liberians and the environment of air and noise emissions from motor vehicles and the release of petrol vapors. How is the EPA regulating passenger vehicles to reduce the amount of harmful emissions?

A pro poor policy that is sustainable and meant to change lives could offer incentives to vehicles owners that obtained commercial vehicles with life-saving technologies. That’s how you ensure road safety, that’s how you fight climate change especially urban air pollution, that’s how you contribute to emissions reduction targets and achievements Paris Agreement Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) target by 2030, make significant improvement on air quality and achieve “a better life for all” while making contributions to environmental sustainability.

We all know enforcement is a national problem and the police capacity is very minimum, therefore deploying compulsory technology like telematics would minimize over speeding, track violators and improve safety.

In conclusion, could you possibly point to one area where “self-regulation” has worked in a Road safety environment? I’d be appreciative because there’s no data availability on either agency website. Further perhaps while you are at it, could you consider a national “Vehicle Testing Audit”, an archetypal audit takes 2 hours minimum, and consists of checking the calibration, quality assurance, braking, lights, wipers etc to determine the road worthiness of vehicles plying our streets. That’s job creation!!

It’s time for a “zero tolerance” policy toward our new normal where even public officials recklessly disregard traffic rules; jumping red lights; driving under the influence of liquor; failing to use seatbelts to bring about a visible change, that’s change for hope isn’t it? I’ve mentioned repeatedly there is a need for scientific innovations, by that I mean it is time for a multidisciplinary approach to traffic planning and road strategy. It’s time to bring on environmentalists, psychologists, planners, engineers, doctors, sociologists, transport experts, for the development of sustainable road policy. In Liberia today, road traffic light remains an electrical or more so a civil engineering matter, we can’t keep in the dark ages of the 18th century.

Any discussion on vehicle regulation must draw on scientific expertise, the private sector and users to determine ways to overcome the hindrances that are preventing you from creating safer roads policies, inclusive and sustainable communities for our people.

I do hope that the above gives you some food for thought, and perhaps we can expect the change rather than hope, as you take charge in addressing these issues, which affect us all Liberians.

The Author:
Alfred Wreh is an Environmental Sustainability Researcher, a Scholar, Circular Economist, Environmentalist, Conservationist, Natural Resources Practitioner and a Concern Citizen. He is a member of several international environmental groups.

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