A Comprehensive Approach to Deal with the Increasing Traffic Fatalities in Guyana
By Harry Thakur Hergash

Guyana Journal, February 2011

With increasing regularity one reads of the wanton loss of life in horrific traffic accidents on the streets of the cities and the highways of Guyana and the subsequent vacuous promises by the authorities to curb this trend. The piecemeal approach to this problem has not worked and a bold and innovative solution is long overdue. Consequently, this article offers some thoughts on reducing traffic fatalities through a comprehensive transformation of traffic administration, including vehicle inspection and certification, driver education and licensing, and law enforcement. Such a transformation has the potential not only to reduce traffic fatalities but also to reduce the cost of government, improve customer service for owners of vehicles, reduce opportunities for corruption, and free-up the police to concentrate on law enforcement.

Around the time the PPP/C came into government in 1992, a number of governments around the world, including those at the municipal, state or provincial and the national levels in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK, were in the process of re-examining the role of government and finding the best ways to provide necessary services to their citizens. By then a book, titled “Reinventing Government” by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler chronicling these transformations, was published and became the “bible” for public sector reforms. Later, by the time Osborne's book, “Banishing Bureaucracy” co-authored with Peter Plastrik, came out in 1996, the term “reinventing government” was well established in public sector management literature. It incorporates a range of initiatives such as customer focused organization, downsized and de-layered organizations, alternative service delivery models such as privatization, result-oriented organization, etc., all intending to reduce the cost of government, reduce bureaucracy, and improve the quality of service to citizens.

In Guyana, during the presidency of Mr. Hoyte, government had started to initiate transformation by privatizing entities which had earlier come under state control but were more suitable for private sector management. This change process continued after the PPP/C took office in 1992 and was taken a step further when the Customs and Excise department of the Ministry of Finance was transformed into the Revenue Agency. However, in general, while the names of many government ministries had been changed prior to or after independence, their basic structure and function more or less remained unchanged from the 1950s to this day. This is certainly the case with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Transportation, two ministries that are critical to solving the problem of traffic fatalities.

In the view of this writer, both of the above-mentioned ministries are overdue for restructuring and this should start with removing driver education and certification from the Police (Ministry of Home Affairs) and placing it under the Ministry of Transportation which should be staffed with trained driver examiners. A more rigorous driver education program should be implemented as well as a graduated licensing system, and new drivers placed on probation for at least one year during which they should not be caught driving under the influence of alcohol or cause an accident, both of which should cause their license to be suspended for a predetermined period. As for passenger vehicles and trucks, there should be a minimum age limit and some combination of experience beyond the probationary period and further training, depending on the size of the vehicle.

Concurrent with these changes, a revision of the traffic statutes should be undertaken after consultation with all stakeholders and consideration given to having special traffic courts, perhaps in the evenings, to deal with routine traffic offences so that cases are dealt with promptly. Not only should penalties for offences be toughened to ensure the penalties reflect society's abhorrence of the offences but also there should be a redefinition of offences. Also, the more recent practice of private settlement of serious cases should be outlawed as this tends to favor the wealthy and well connected, creating an inequity in the dispensation of justice and bringing the system into disrepute. As well, police should be given enhanced training and individuals, both on the front line and higher levels, have their performance formally monitored to ensure effective investigation, management and prosecution of cases. As such, there will be greater incentive for front-line police officers to be present in court for trials, be better prepared to support prosecution and for superiors to ensure effective management of their units, all necessary components of improved policing.

Further, vehicle inspection and certification should be privatized, thereby removing the Police (Ministry of Home Affairs) from the process and giving the Ministry of Transportation the responsibility for overseeing the approved auto-repair shops. Details on how this process could be implemented and managed effectively to minimize abuse and ensure government's share of revenue, could be determined by looking at practices in the United States and Canada. This approach will remove the police from the process and again free them for law enforcement activities, leave inspection in the hands of certified technicians, provide employment opportunity for auto-technician graduates of the various technical institutes, and give vehicle owners flexibility and convenience in scheduling service.

“Mini-buses” as a means of passenger transportation on the roads came about after the collapse of the Government operated bus system that used large buses for mass transportation of people. Regrettably, the “mini-buses” have been a major contributor to the high traffic fatalities on the roads. The collapse of the Government-run buses was not an indictment of the buses but a failure of Government to effectively run the operation. Prior to the Government-operated buses, road transportation was mainly in the hands of private individuals who were licensed to operate large buses, and they did the job effectively and efficiently while making a decent income for their families. They moved large numbers of passengers and had an outstanding safety record. Government should re-evaluate its transportation policy and, once again, consider privately owned large buses for passenger transport, implementation of which could be phased in over a period time to minimize the impact on the owners of “mini-buses”.

Another problem facing Government is the inability to get capital projects completed on time, within budget, and to acceptable standards. While this paper recommends additional responsibilities for the Ministry of Transportation, it also suggests that consideration be given to the removal of the Works section of this portfolio and placement under a Minister of Works and Supplies who should be responsible for the Tender Board, acquisition of goods and services for Government, and work on all capital projects. In the view of this writer such a Minister is more warranted than having two ministers in each of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education.

Finally, equally or perhaps more important, is the need to ensure that those in authority in Government, the police and the judiciary do not use their authority to compromise the administration of the various systems, procedures and laws. This requires not only rules of ethical behavior to be in place but also a commitment to ensure they are followed and violators dealt with. In any organization, if a senior functionary is prepared to violate controls for gain or to help relatives and friends and there is no adverse consequence, then it is only a matter of time before subordinates will start to follow suit. It becomes a case of “monkey see, monkey do”. After all, in an environment of corruption at senior levels, why should a subordinate feel constrained to do otherwise and pass up the opportunity to become financially well-off?

Over the years short term fixes to the problem of traffic fatalities have not worked. It is now time for a holistic approach. The approach outlined above is likely to have the greatest impact. Yes, it will require a longer time period for implementation but, with a planned implementation strategy, the various initiatives could be prioritized to ensure that those likely to give the greatest results are implemented earlier. Too many lives are lost needlessly, families suffer untold emotional scars, and public services such as healthcare, police and the courts are overburdened. The seriousness of the problem demands urgent attention and an innovative approach.

(Previously published in Stabroek News, December 6, 2010.)
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