Scene of a ghastly road accident

Fola Arthur-Worrey

One of the major public safety challenges for governments across the globe since the introduction of the automobile as the major form of mass transportation, has been how to establish and maintain a reasonable level of road safety along the roads and highways, especially in terms of the creation of a safe and predictable driving environment and thereby reducing the number of avoidable or preventable accidents. This is more so in the face of huge increases in traffic in recent decades, and the widespread introduction of new technology such as the mobile phone, which has had a major impact on driver behaviour.
Accidents will no doubt occur, but in attempting, by the introduction of largely preventive measures, to ameliorate the losses in lives and property resulting from them, various governments across the world, at local, state and national level, have developed policies, passed legislation, designed highway codes, installed traffic signs, and promoted enlightenment and awareness programs (on a consistent basis and often in conjunction with NGOs) in attempts to achieve this objective.

Judging by existing legislation in our country at both federal and state levels, road safety would appear to be a key and extremely important governance issue. The existence of laws with detailed provisions, designed to regulate road traffic, and the establishment of a specialised road safety agencies to enforce those provisions, should indicate that government realises the importance of road safety in view of its economic, social and quality-of-life implications and in its vital role in the establishment of public order.

But regulating road safety is an extremely demanding business. It is a complicated process faced by many contra-forces – it involves driver education to address individual driver personalities, attitudes and habits (compounded in recent times, as I have said, by the introduction and widespread use of the mobile phone, and in the face of certain cultural and religious beliefs that see safety as a spiritual rather than practical matter), institutional enforcement capacity and the required political will and institutional support (or the lack thereof) for such capacity; the state of road infrastructure and signage; elite impunity and attitudes towards attempts at control and regulation; standardization and acceptance of traffic safety rules in a federal system; convincing drivers of the need to consider the safety of other road users; lobbying and pressure by different interest groups who might see effective enforcement of road safety regulations as restrictions on their businesses (especially in the area of maintenance and compliance with regulation vehicle safety standards), the role of stakeholders, the size of the country and the growing number of motor vehicles on our roads.

Nigeria is classified as a high road accident country with an extremely high rate of fatalities, injuries and property loss suffered in these accidents, most of which are avoidable. Statistics compiled by the World Health Organisation, covering 2013 but released in its 2015 report, showed that though Nigeria’s accident rate per 100,000 inhabitants (20.5%) is lower than the African average (at 26.6%, the highest in the world), its fatality rate per 100,000 motor vehicles (at 615.4) is higher than the African average in this category (at 574); and disturbingly, for the year covered by the report (2013), Nigeria recorded one of the highest numbers in terms of road accident fatalities in the world at 35,621, the highest in Africa.

This situation has major negative impacts on the socio-economic health of the country: the first is that the high accident rate often robs families of their sole bread-winners, either by death or permanent disability, and the nation of young people on whom a lot has been invested in terms of education and training; there is also substantial loss of goods being transported, pushing up insurance premiums and providing transporters with an excuse to avoid insuring their goods. This impacts negatively on the effectiveness of the value-recovery mechanism that insurance is supposed to provide so as to help businesses remain financially and economically viable.

The poor state of safety also has a severe impact on the quality of life of commuters as a trip along our roads is extremely stressful, consisting largely of a series of near-misses, and with reckless and impatient drivers of commuter and goods vehicles driving at high speeds while they struggle to keep vehicles in the worst possible state of repair on the road while hurling abuses back at passengers who urge them to slow down. By the end of the journey the passenger is physically, mentally and emotionally drained. I do a lot of road trips between states behind the wheel (to the shock and surprise of family, friends and associates), and I can attest to this personally. Another major fall-out of this situation is the disincentive to domestic and foreign tourists to travel by road to the many and varied potential tourist destinations around the country, many of which cannot be reached directly by air, or even where they can, the cost is prohibitive for the average person.
Nigeria at both the national and state levels has made various attempts to address the issue of road safety, the most visible being the establishment by law, in 1986, of the Federal Road Safety Commission with provisions covering virtually every aspect of road safety, and empowering the commission to regulate these matters through the enforcement and other powers vested in the Corps established by the Act.

There are also various road traffic laws, federal and state, which pre-date the formation of the FRSC, most of whose provisions are geared towards creating the conditions by which road safety is enhanced. In addition, over the past two decades, the establishment by many state governments of various types of traffic control agencies have been mechanisms by which governments have sought to apply the laws and thereby address the issue of road safety.

The problem we are confronted with is that, with the exception of the regulation on seat belts which has been a quite extraordinary success, most other attempts at improving road safety appear to be uncoordinated, short-lived and hesitant. For instance, in spite of the FRSC’s recently declared intention to enforce safety laws from July 1st, 2017, especially regarding the control of the use of mobile phones by drivers, nothing has changed and the illegal use of mobile phones by drivers is the most visible and egregious traffic offence on all our roads. In short, the multiple agencies do not seem to operate in a cooperative and cohesive manner, often challenging each-others’ authority, or working at cross-purposes, and the situation is compounded by political and other considerations, with the result that safety conditions on our roads and highways have in fact deteriorated, indeed almost being accepted as the default position, over the past two decades as road users, particularly commercial ones, take advantage of the lacuna or inter-agency conflict to do as they please.

Prior to the establishment of FRSC, enforcement of Road Traffic and Safety laws and regulations, including the arrest and prosecution of offenders, was the exclusive preserve of the Nigeria police operating on a 24 hour round-the-clock basis and exercising that power through their various Motor Traffic Divisions scattered across the country. However, with the establishment of the FRSC, that exclusivity was lost, although the law establishing the commission did not state that the police should cease their road traffic enforcement functions (and that would have been a problem anyway since police powers are constitutionally conferred), but what the establishment of the FRSC did do was to create the impression that they were solely responsible for road safety even though they had neither the capacity, numbers in personnel nor geographical spread of the police, and more particularly that, unlike the police, they operate like the civil service with fixed working hours, closing down their operations at 6pm each day after which time and during the most dangerous driving period of the day, many of the road safety violations take place under the cover of darkness and with the knowledge by violators that they will get away with it since once the FRSC withdraws there is practically no road safety enforcement. Indeed, though the police still operate traffic divisions, they do not carry out these functions with the same visibility and effectiveness in the past since they have accepted their role in this regard as being secondary tot eh FRSC.

The upshot of this lack of clarity in mandate, strategy, synergy and methodology has meant that road safety failures continue to exact a gruesome toll in lives, a high economic cost, and pose a major challenge to Nigeria’s governance systems. It is my respectful view that this situation is greatly compounded by the lack of a National Road Safety Policy which would provide clear and unambiguous guidelines regarding all the elements of road safety, including enlightenment and driver education, enforcement, responsibility of stakeholders, and all the other components, and would set out what the political leadership considers as its priorities in terms of road safety so that relevant agencies would be properly guided.

One of the key elements of effective governance across the globe is the development and continuous review of policy affecting all aspects of our lives. Policy drives function, cost, purpose, objectives and desired outcomes. Nigeria at the moment is one of the few countries of our category (medium income), size, importance and accident numbers that does not have a national road (or transport) safety policy. South Africa has a very comprehensive one for instance, and so do Kenya, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Because these countries, like Nigeria, have high-risk driving environments leading to high mortality and property loss figures, largely due to avoidable road accidents, their national safety policies designed to assist them to focus limited resources on institutional and collective responses that assist in reducing those risks and accident figures.

One of the challenges we are still grappling with as a nation is that we believe, with all the best of intentions, that if we create specialised agencies to deal with specified problems, then we have solved those problems, and we therefore don’t seem to pay sufficient attention to what the agency is doing and whether it is achieving the goals for which it was established. Because such agencies are usually operating without the guidance of a clearly articulated government policy, there is often no organic process by which they are made to work in a holistic and effective manner. Laws are good as starting points in terms of identifying the problem and conferring the powers, and like the FRSC Law or the Law establishing the FRSC they can be very detailed in setting out offences and defining areas of regulations and enforcement. But it is virtually impossible to enforce all the provisions of a law at the same time, given limited available and resources and the sheer scale of the problem, and without any clear Federal Government policy setting out what the Government wants to achieve and which areas it considers as priority so those resources are properly targeted at desired outcomes and certain privileged groups are expressly informed that they are subject to the policy, you often have the laws administered half-heartedly, haphazardly and incoherently, and the agency being governed subject to the particular thoughts, attitudes and whims of its chief executive, or becoming subject to certain private or political interests, thereby defeating the aims of the law.
It is my respectful view that the development of a national road safety policy document by all the relevant agencies such as the Ministry of Justice, the Police, FRSC, Ministries of Transportation and Works, etc.,

along with inputs from state agencies, safety experts, NGOs and the private sector, that sets out in clear terms the objectives, mandates, obligations and duties of all stakeholders, public and private, and its publication and wide dissemination, would address to a large extent the serious deficiencies in the whole road safety space, and would enable the various agencies charged with the regulation of safety on roads and highways to more effectively carry out their activities, and enable a better and more effective budgeting and fund appropriation process for the clearly defined functions specified under the policy.

The obligation of preparing such a policy must necessarily fall on the federal government as it has primary responsibility for the main agencies involved, i.e. the police and the FRSC, and has the largest network of roads passing through every state and local government in the land. Indeed it is virtually impossible to move within a state or through other states without traversing a federal high way, and therefore a National Road Safety policy orchestrated and issued by the FG would necessarily bind all road users, empower the different road safety agencies, and compel compliance with the objectives of the policy, even by members of our imperious political and business elite and members of security and law enforcement agencies who are extremely complicit in many of the more serious breaches of safety regulations.

Components of the Policy
An effective Road Safety policy would necessarily include road safety management, safer mobility, safer vehicles, driver education and enlightenment, enforcement and prosecution, engineering (road infrastructure and signage), environmental issues, the role of stakeholders, and risk analysis for prevention strategies.
Road safety management would involve the articulation of the ‘’general objectives of the policy” and will identify the agencies involved in the implementation and establish their roles. So for instance, such national policy will identify the type of activity and behaviour that has been determined as the major contributors to, and causes of, current danger levels on our roads and highways, and direct agencies to deal with these problems.

For instance, the policy would address an area treated with casual disregard by most drivers/owners/operators of motor vehicles, especially of delivery trucks, tippers, tankers, trailers, waste disposal lorries, official vehicles, security vehicles, staff and commuter buses (including government owned), commercial mini-buses, and often private cars, and this is in the area of non-compliance with the statutory requirement, in the interest of road safety, to ensure that all specified regulation lights/lamps (front, rear, brake, parking, direction indicator, hazard, running, reverse) are fitted and functioning on every motor vehicle, and that regulation driving mirrors are also attached and functional, before they are allowed on the highway. Both the FRSC Act and most state Road Traffic legislation contains these provisions, and the logic for this should be self-evident, as pointed out in the various laws: brake lights warn the driver behind that you are slowing down or stopping; indicator lights warn that you are about to make a turn or change lanes, rear parking lights used at night allow the driver behind you to see you in time to avoid running into you; head lamps allow you to see sufficiently in front to avoid collision. And all these lights, which our laws specifically enjoin all drivers of vehicles to ensure are fully operational, are preventive measures designed to significantly improve driving conditions (especially at night) and thereby reduce the prospects of accident and make driving a more pleasant and less stressful experience.

These regulations are largely ignored as a drive around any part of Nigeria after dark will clearly reveal, and research shows that a major contributor to accidents on our roads is that the vehicles involved are non-compliant with the relevant provisions of the various Road Traffic Laws and the FRSC Act. The research further shows that 70% of commercial vehicles, commuter or freight, do not have functioning regulation lights: most disdain the regulation on rear lighting, many have only one functioning headlamp, most do not have brake lights or direction indicators, and a majority do not have side mirrors.

This same casual or uninformed approach to these important vehicular safety components affects trailers, tankers, tippers, delivery lorries and trucks etc., as if there is a general conspiracy to be non-compliant with the law, and yet there is almost zero enforcement and zero education, apparently because governments and their agencies have not paid sufficient attention to this issue, or because they fear a backlash from transporter and driver unions with political costs in votes or disruption of businesses (e.g. supply of petrol) if they seek to enforce compliance (as some agency officials once informed me some years ago when I raised the issue). Because of governments’ seeming passiveness to these issues (even where their own laws provide for them and criminalize their breach), large numbers of government owned and operated vehicles are also non-compliant. Most of the omissions highlighted here require a minimal financial input by the operators to rectify, sometimes just the cost of rewiring or replacement of a bulb or lamp cover, and the proposed policy should demand immediate compliance and enforcement across the board for all vehicles travelling along federal highways. The goal of the policy would be substantial voluntary compliance, thereby enabling the relevant agencies to concentrate their enforcement assets on the deviant few that resist compliance even after public enlightenment. In addition to these safety equipment failures just pointed out are numerous mechanical deficiencies that also touch on safety, such as worn-out tyres, faulty brakes, unsecured container loads, cracked windscreens that obscure vision, and emission of huge amounts of black smoke which obscures the view of the driver following behind, all prescribed in the law but ignored, often with tragic results.

Driver Education/Public Enlightenment/Misuse Of Mobile Phones
Another major contributory factor to the high rate of accidents on our roads is the attitude of drivers to road safety generally and which again touches very significantly on the issue of driver attitudes and education. A study of driving habits of both private, government and commercial drivers shows a large measure of ignorance of, or disdain for, traffic rules and almost complete blindness to traffic signs {where they exist}.

But none of these omissions is as worrying to safety experts as the increasing use of mobile phones by drivers and its impact on road safety because of the powerful distraction it causes. Virtually every driver, educated or not, seems to be guilty of this breach of the law, a situation which is now made worse by the growing phenomenon of texting while driving. Indeed, according to the International Transport Research Laboratory, reaction times are twice as long for drivers who are texting compared with those who have been drinking. The FRSC itself has attributed most road crashes to the same cause, with the former sector commander of Akwa Ibom state, Mr. Musa Yerima, identifying the use of cell phones while driving as a major cause of most road accidents. The member of the House of Representatives representing Lagos Mainland had in March of this year stated in a newspaper interview “that about 30% of road crashes in Nigeria, out of which about 25% of the victims die, are caused by the use of mobile phones while driving”. Reflecting that, clearly, the FRSC was incapable of addressing the problem alone, he called for a public hearing on the menace and encouraged the FRSC and other relevant agencies to partner with the media and NGOs to sensitize Nigerians on the dangers of phone use while driving. Not surprisingly, no such public hearing was held, and in the absence of a road safety policy that would provide guidance for the agencies, little or nothing has been done in this direction by the FRSC. Imagine how many lives we might have saved since then.

Governments and their enforcement agencies in many countries have taken this matter very seriously, imposing strict controls on the use of phones while driving, some going as far as imposing a ‘no-touch’ law with heavy penalties. Quoted in the Guardian Newspaper (UK) in March 2017, the British Transport Secretary, Chris Gayling, reacting to the rising accident and fatality figures attributable to the use of mobile phones said: “Our message is simple and clear: do NOT get distracted by your mobile phone while driving. It may seem innocent, but holding and using your phone at the wheel risks serious injury and even death to you and other road users.” He added: “Everyone has a part to play in encouraging their family and friends not to use their phones while driving – it is as inexcusable as drink driving. Yet we, strangely, have been rather remiss and extremely passive on this very vital Road Safety issue. It is instructive to note that although the FRSC Law contains many references to this issue, their efforts in driver education and enforcement on this issue has been largely feeble and disturbingly intermittent, and no senior official in government, including the minister of transport, has made reference to this and other road safety issues. How then are the officials in the FRSC to be guided as to what government deems important in this area, especially in the absence of published policy?

The Role of the Public Sector
The first element of the public sector aspect of the policy would be the role of enforcement agencies. The policy must be clear in stating the expectations of their principal, the Federal Government represented by its political heads, and clarify some of the grey areas currently exploited by road users. For instance, if due to capacity and security concerns, the FRSC is unwilling to operate after dark, then the policy must direct that the Police (or, by delegation, state traffic law enforcement agencies) should exercise regulatory functions during this critical period, i.e., 6 pm to 6am. We surely cannot leave unaddressed a situation where there is absolutely no road safety regulation during the most dangerous period of the day. In addition, the policy must incorporate the role and obligations of driving schools and review their training methods, and after the publication of the policy, all driving schools would be compelled to incorporate them as training guides so that new drivers are knowledgeable about the requirements of road safety. At present, learner drivers have been observed to drive without instructors, to use their phones and to pay little heed to highway-code obligations. If we leave this area un-addressed that we are creating another generation of bad drivers.

Research and even a cursory observation of daily activities on our roads and highways reveals a serious level of non-compliance of Road Safety regulations by a substantial number of vehicles owned and operated by the public sector at Federal, State and Local Government levels. Ministries, agencies, institutions and local government administration, including law enforcement agencies such as the police and even the FRSC, are all guilty in this regard. Official vehicles, staff buses, contract and waste disposal vehicles operating as agents of government or on government business, and patrol vehicles fall into these categories, especially with regards to safety equipment as set out in the various Road Safety laws, e.g. appropriate warning lights, tyres, side mirrors, and so on. In addition, many government drivers believe they are immune from the operation of Road Safety laws generally, and drive recklessly, use their phones recklessly and unlawfully, do not signal when they are cornering or changing lanes, over speed, drive against traffic, and are disdainful of and disrespectful to other road users. This is an additional issue, often overlooked, that increases the trust deficit between government and members of the public.

Convoy and escort drivers of both public officers and private individuals are another category of the Public Sector that is in serious need of firm regulation with regard to their operations. These escort drivers (often encouraged by their principals) show little patience for lawful behaviour on the roads and have nothing but scorn for legitimate road users, seeming to believe that they are not subject to regulation. They disobey traffic laws, drive recklessly at breakneck speeds, use sirens and flashing lights without restraint (another area that the law empowers the FRSC to control but which it does not) bullying other drivers out of the way, and are violent when confronted or resisted. The recent shooting of an FRSC official who was trying to enforce the law, by a police escort in the convoy of an Abia government official graphically illustrates this disturbing state of affairs, one that is inconsistent with democratic norms and the values of an orderly society. The proposed FG policy should frontally address all these issues so that by a process of internal control and direction within the various components and agencies of the public sector (usually by executive order, circular, directive or force order), compliance can be enforced, and in relation to issues of vehicle safety standards, sufficient budgetary allocation made towards maintenance of vehicles.

The Role of the Private Sector
In tackling this serious and ongoing Road Safety crisis, particularly with regards to vehicle safety and driver attitude, it is important that the policy specifically states that those elements of the private sector who conduct their business through fleets of company cars or trucks, tankers and trailers, whether directly owned or hired, must ensure, in the public interest, that their vehicles are compliant with the vehicle safety standards set out in the law, and that their drivers are educated sufficiently to understand their obligations in terms of Road Safety and held accountable by their employers and hirers if they breach the standards. As things stand now, many of the vehicles used by corporate organisations and companies to conduct their businesses are non-compliant with extant road safety standards, and they are at present not held to account.
The policy will compel private sector buy-in to, and compliance with its terms, and this would be a major contribution to road safety generally as a very high number of fatalities are immediately traceable to vehicle safety issues in this category.

––Fola Arthur-Worrey is former Solicitor General of Lagos State