Road safety strategy: the uncomfortable truth

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For the benefit of our readers, Weekly is publishing features that have appeared in its print edition in the past. These features have been selected for their relation with current events, to re-ignite the interest of our readers in matters they may have missed or simply to present a blast from the past that readers might find interesting to re-explore.

For the benefit of our readers, Weekly is publishing features that have appeared in its print edition in the past. These features have been selected for their relation with current events, to re-ignite the interest of our readers in matters they may have missed or simply to present a blast from the past that readers might find interesting to re-explore.  

With the suspension of the penalty point system and the temporary switching off of the speed cameras, the new government is carrying out a key campaign pledge. During the election, both systems were slammed across the political divide, but how fair is this criticism?

“The penalty point system will be suspended for two months as from this January 1st,” the new minister of public infrastructure, Nando Bodha, announced last week. The suspension, according to Bodha, is to allow the new government to live up to an electoral pledge that the MSM made during the election to revise the penalty point system. Key in the reworking of the traffi c regime is the repositioning of speed cameras and other proposals include raising speed limits, reducing the validity of penalty points from three to two years, introducing a ‘rehabilitation programme’ for those accumulating lots of points and reworking the ‘double penalty’ system by fi ning drivers for their fi rst two contraventions and assigning points as from the third. As a sweetener, the government has already announced a general amnesty to the 70,000 motorists who have got penalty points.

  Ironically, much of the same kind of reworking was also promised by the very party under whose government the system was put into place. During the campaign, the Labour Party, along with the MMM, too promised to rework the system and put in place an amnesty to appeal to disgruntled motorists and transportation lobbies. With every party, including the one that should be claiming paternity, slamming the system, the impression that was created was that of a system that desperately needed fi xing. But was it ever broken to begin with?

Since Italy introduced the penalty point system, road fatalities in the southern European country went down by 25 per cent, Spain too saw a reduction in road fatalities and 20 out of 27 EU countries have introduced similar systems. Armed with these facts, the then-Labour government in 2013 introduced the penalty point system that, along with 50 new speed cameras dotted around the island, was expected to bring the same results to Mauritius as well. With fatalities as the yardstick with which to judge the effi cacy of the system, the key question to ask is, did the system lead to fewer deaths on the roads?

“It has worked: fatalities were on a downward trend,” insists Ben Buntipilly, the road safety adviser to the former prime minister and architect of the policy tells Weekly. “The system was working well.” But do the numbers back up this view? Statistics Mauritius records road deaths and accident fi gures in half-year batches with fi gures available for the period between January and June of each year. Since the complete fi gures for 2014 as a whole are not yet available, we can compare the fi gures for the fi rst half of each year to draw a good comparison.

To begin with, the number of accidents in general went up. Between January and June 2014, the number of road accidents grew by 12.6 per cent reaching 12,668, compared to the same six months of 2013. But one major explanation is that although policies like the penalty point system and the speed cameras were put in place, the number of cars on the road continued toballoon each year, going from 411,527 vehicles registered at the National Transport Authority in 2012 to 454, 426 in mid-2014. An average growth rate of 2.5 per cent each year. Put simply, more cars on the road make accidents more likely. But at the same time, road fatalities actually went down. In 2013, when the system was introduced, road fatalities went down by 12.8 per cent, from 156 to 136, compared to 2012 when the system was not in place. And the decline has continued into September 2014, when accidents went down by a further 15.2 per cent compared to the previous year until September.

But instead of touting the system as a success in achieving its stated goal of reducing accident deaths, in a fi t of populism, each and every party instead focused on its shortcomings, losing sight of the bigger picture, and ultimately spinning the success as a failure. “I would not say that the criticism was unfair, but it defi nitely wasn’t fair either,” concludes Buntipilly before adding somewhat elliptically, “there should be a systematic approach where the government, transport authorities and motorists work together and not in isolation and it certainly should not be billed as just Buntipilly doing all this on his own!” he added, hinting at his frustration over the lack of defence of a system that he insists has delivered the goods.

Ultimately, the biggest evidence for the system’s achieving some measure of success is that even though the new government slammed the system while in opposition, now in government their emphasis is on tweaking the system here and there and reducing the stiff penalties to keep motorists happy, and not throwing the baby out with the bathwater by scrapping the system entirely.

Success, they say, has many fathers but failure is always an orphan. In the case of the penalty point system and the speed cameras, it seems that phrase has to be turned upside down. 

(Published in Weekly on 8 - 14 January 2015)

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