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The road often taken

When one thinks of roads, after prayers for safe passage, it is often the brilliant poem of Robert Frost, The Road Less Taken, that lurks..

When one thinks of roads, after prayers for safe passage, it is often the brilliant poem of Robert Frost, The Road Less Taken, that lurks in the consciousness of the thinker.

For many Nigerians, however, it is the road taken that is often the worry. These roads, spread like monstrous tentacles across the country, grabbing everything they could take hold of, be it dreams and dreamers, and gobbling it down.

Dreamers like my late friend Ishaku Abubakar who looked for a job for over 15 years after graduation from the university, finally found one, married and 27 days later was crushed to death by a truck whose brakes had failed.

We all know someone or several people who had been claimed by Nigeria’s famished roads, (winks to Ben Okri).  Every single one of us knows a friend, a colleague or relative who had been devoured by the roads. We have had road accidents in this country that have, in one huge heave, consumed dozens of lives, causing injuries to more and distress to an innumerable number of people. Just last November, at least 37 people died in a three-bus collision near Maiduguri.

Do we know how many every year? At least 40, 000 annually, the Corps Marshall of the Federal Road Safety Corps, Dauda Biu, proclaimed in May. One in four deaths is a pedestrian. While globally, that only places Nigeria at 54 on the list of countries with the highest death rates from road accidents. With 27 in every 100,000 accidents leading to fatalities according to World Life Expectancy data, it is still one too many deaths happening far too often.

It is even more painful when one considers the very useless reasons Nigerians are suffering avoidable deaths on the roads. When distilled, the causes of accidents come down to five key things.

The first is the criminally dreadful state of roads in the country. Considering that road transport is the most common form of transportation in the country, it is just appalling to see the state of roads polka-dotted with potholes and how poorly they are being maintained despite the billions budgeted for construction and maintenance.

Looking at the statistics, and the gruesome accident scenes littered across the country, it is not unreasonable to ask those who divert this money to their private pockets how they sleep at night. Of course, peacefully in luxurious homes furnished with the blood of every Nigerian who died on that road, they failed to construct or maintain. Today, the most common form of extra-judicial killing in the country is death by potholes. Dodging potholes is an essential driving skill in Nigeria. The problem is in a deadly game with multiple players, it is often hard to avoid both potholes and other cars trying to do the same at the same time. How long will this menace last?

The second reason is bad road law application. We are not a country short on laws. But the application of the laws has become incidental to the extent that most people do not realize that there are certain laws on road use. Speed limits are not being observed or enforced. So, you often find a situation where the roads are good, accident rates increase because people are overspeeding simply because there are no consequences for this action.

Consequently, the other reason for the prevalence of deaths on our roads is the reprehensible conduct of law enforcers on the roads who mount checkpoints indiscriminately and are more interested in extortion from road users than ensuring laws and safety measures are kept. For a fee, a driver without lights is allowed to proceed. We have failed to automate speed tracking using cameras and ensure compliance with laws because it pays the enforcers’ pockets to be on the roads to help people circumvent the rules for a token change.

While the Corps Marshal of the FRSC says his agency is committed to bringing down accident fatality rates in the country to 50 per cent of the current rates by 2030, that decrease will only be possible if the corps takes more disciplined and proactive measures to straighten the dealings of its officers, introduce speed limits on the roads and ensure compliance. It would however be unfair not to acknowledge the numerous instances where the FRSC have gone over and beyond to save lives and help distressed Nigerians on the roads.

While the law enforcement and the roads take their share of the blame, we must duly dish out on the terrible road users we have in this country. Nigerians approach driving as they do everything else, with an abundance of recklessness and detrimental bravado. The mad dash drivers engage in to reach some destinations and return to ferry more passengers has led to dangerous driving on the highways and repeated human error in many accidents. An exhausted driver is one turn or a second’s doze away from endangering the lives of his passengers.

While the economic realities of the country justify the desperation to make as many trips as possible to keep their heads above water, the deaths this has caused do not. That is why the drivers’ unions must ensure that limits are introduced and set that will protect their members and the passengers they are carrying.

These bad attitudes to road use do not preclude abuse of the road and its laws, disregard for pedestrians and poor vehicle maintenance as well as a willingness to cut corners with law enforcement. We do not only need a change of attitude but a more stringent vetting of who is licensed to drive and what road use education they need to have.

After all said and done, accidents will still happen because they are accidents. When these happen, we need the healthcare system to be capable of saving as many lives as possible. Often, the system fails us leading to numerous losses of lives that could have been saved.

I remember when my family was returning from a trip and got into an accident on the Keffi-Abuja road and my youngest, who was only a few months old at the time, was thrown out of the car. They were rushed to the closest hospital, the Federal Medical Centre, Mararaban Gurku, where I rushed to meet them and discovered there was no doctor on duty. A hospital that big?

When the doctor arrived, quite a while later, sleepy and uninterested, he seemed only obsessed with establishing the child’s weight. I was more concerned with establishing that there were no internal injuries. However, the scales in the emergency unit were all broken and both the doctor and nurses seemed lost as to where to find one. Eventually, one was excavated from Paediatrics and came looking like an artefact of a lost civilization, ancient and dusty. The doctor took the child, placed him on the scale, lifted him and handed him back.

We could go, he said. The child is fine, he said. To this day, I wonder how placing a child on a rusty scale could establish the absence of internal injuries. We took the child to another hospital for a more thorough examination. Fortunately, he was fine. Many Nigerians have not been so lucky.

The convergence of these factors has and continues to do damage to road users and businesses in this country and must be addressed. With the removal of subsidy, it is necessary to draw the attention of the government to invest some of that money into building better roads speedily, providing better healthcare and equipping and training the FRSC and other essential workers to better discharge their duties and not only achieve their target of 50 per cent less death rate from road accidents in the country by 2030 but bring it down a lot less and a lot sooner.

 

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