Monday, June 8, 2009

Driving in Paradise

As of late, traffic lights seem to dominate the discussion, certainly wherever motorists get together. I will not even attempt to get to the bottom of WHY so many traffic lights are/were not working over the past couple of months, because not only is it irrelevant, but there are also too many rumours abounding telling different stories, and as government is involved, I doubt we will hear the truth anyhow.

Whether or not the government chooses to outsource the maintenance of traffic lights to a private contractor, does not change the fact that ultimately it is the government's responsibility to ensure that they are working. If the government hires a contractor who cannot - for whatever reasons - do the job, then the government is at fault for hiring an incompetent firm. If, as some rumours suggest, the contractor refuses to continue fixing broken traffic lights, because they had not been paid for services already rendered by the government, then the government is at fault for not paying its bills. After all, the government will license my car if I turn up at the Road Traffic Department and fail to bring my money along.

Which ever way you twist and turn it, at the end of the day, the government has been responsible for fixing traffic lights ever since the first one was put into service on the corner of Wulff Road and East Street on January 9th, 1966. In light of the recent desaster, I find it almost humorous how Minister Neko Grant boasts about having signed two contracts (to the tune of $40,000 each) to fix a situation that should have never been allowed to become this bad in the first place.

This, by the way, is the real point I want to make today. Every year, I have to show up at Road Traffic to have my car "inspected" and to renew the car's license, as well as my driver's license, although the latter can be renewed for three years, too, should I choose to dig deeper into my wallet. Why?

I dare say the only reason we have this system in place is because the government uses this as a means of raising revenue. You may have noticed that if put inverted commas around the word "inspected." I did so, because I am firmly convinced that the way Road Traffic inspects cars does absolutely nothing to ensure the cars' road worthiness. The usual routine, as far as I remember right now, is something along these lines: front lights, indicators (front), horn, windshield wipers, rear lights, brake lights, indicators (rear). Usually, however, the inspectors cannot be bothered to go through the full routine, and choose a random sample of the above items. Last time I went, the truck in front of me had gaping holes where its front lights should be. Nonetheless, it passed inspection, as he was asked for horn, wipers, brake lights only. By they way, I went on my motorbike. I was asked for indicators, horn, and WINDSHIELD WIPERS! I could write endless paragraphs of what serious inspections look like in other countries, where it is, for instance, tested that the brakes actually work, or that the tyres have sufficient thread left, but I shall refrain, because, as stated above, this is not about road safety, but about raising revenue.

Similarly, the renewal of driver's licenses is about raising revenue, nothing else. There are countries where you get your license for life, there are others where you only have to renew them once you reach a certain age, to ensure that you are physically - and mentally - still capable of operating a car safely. Here, it is primarily a financial transaction.

In short, there are two sources of income for the government that come exclusively from this country's motorists. I would like to make the case that this money should therefore be used exclusively to provide these motorists with acceptable driving conditions. Looking after a country's infrastructure, and this includes roads (and therefore traffic lights, too), is one of government's first and foremost duties. This country's governments, PLP and FNM, have successively failed the public in this regard.

There are more revenue streams that could, and probably should, be earmarked for road improvements, and these include, for instance, the business license fees of taxi cabs or jitneys, as well as a lot of tourism revenue. Tourists, after all, use our roads, too, without having to pay many of the fees we as Bahamians pay.

I started with traffic lights, and I reiterate that point. If you have traffic lights, they ought to work, as otherwise they become a safety hazard, and resulting damages (to cars, building, or persons) are the direct responsibility of the government. I know of at least one case of a building downtown that was damaged as a result of an accident where two cars approached an intersection from different directions, and both of them saw green lights. The police therefore concluded that neither driver was at fault. Consequently, neither driver's insurance company would pay for the repairs necessary, and the owner of the building had to pay out of their own pocket. The owner, by the way, was a charitable organisation; you can imagine, their pockets ain't too deep. In my opinion, the government should reimburse both drivers and the building's owner, but you and I both know that this ain't gonna happen, unless one sues the government, and who can afford to do that?

Next point: potholes. (I thought about writing something about these, too, but they've been a nuisance in this country for so long now that me simply mentioning the word should say it all. Minister Grant, will you buy me new tyres and suspension? My current ones were messed up by the potholes your government is responsible for!)

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