In Jamaica, ‘road madness’ leads to increased fatalities — and call to action

Screenshot from a YouTube video showing footage of a car accident on a bridge in Kingston, Jamaica. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in this particular crash. Video uploaded by Best Jamaica.

The number of motor vehicle-related deaths in Jamaica is steadily increasing. As of November 17, 2019 — the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims — 374 Jamaicans have died in 342 crashes, compared to 330 road fatalities in 2018, and 284 in 2017.

A Twitter account opened in January 2019 by the National Road Safety Council (NRSC), a non-governmental organisation, is now fairly inactive, having failed to achieve its goal of “Below 300” road fatalities. In September, it tweeted sadly:

But road safety is not just about numbers. The “road madness” in Jamaica is caused by a complex set of factors, which varies from one side of the island to another. Today, some Jamaicans are creating initiatives to disrupt recklessness on the roads, and the mindsets behind it.

The number of Jamaicans personally impacted by road crashes is huge. Soon after the death of his half-sister in August 2019, Maleek Powell shared his family's tragic story on Twitter. His sister, along with her best friend, died in a taxi while on their way to work; the driver was also killed. In a heartfelt thread, Powell spoke of the recent passing of his sister’s mother, who he believes died of a broken heart:

Determined not to allow his sister's death to amount to a series of RIP tweets from social media followers, Powell recently founded an advocacy group, Project Zero Jamaica, in her memory. The name was inspired by Sweden’s highly successful “Vision Zero” initiative. The Jamaican version hopes to lobby the government to make the necessary changes to road safety and public transportation laws, “with an aim of zero road fatalities by 2030.”

Some social media users regularly refer to taxi drivers as “taxi germs” because they view their reckless driving habits as a disease:

The grief of the thousands of Jamaicans whose lives have been affected by tragic road-related deaths comes amidst a groundswell of complaints, often expressed on Twitter, about a range of obstacles to road safety. Posts usually take the form of dashboard camera videos, and photographs of “bad driving” and accidents, all in the daily flow of angry tweets.

A representative of the NRSC tweeted despairingly:

At another overnight crash scene, a firefighter tweeted:

Part of the challenge of putting effective road safety policies in place is corruption. Many netizens believe that addressing bribery in the transport sector is key:

Chair of Jamaica's National Road Safety Council, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in a photo op with schoolchildren at the Office of the Prime Minister in May, 2017, during the fourth UN Road Safety Week. The theme of the event was “#SlowItDown — Speed Kills Children.” Photo by Emma Lewis, used with permission.

One indication of how important the issue is to Jamaicans is that Prime Minister Andrew Holness chairs the National Road Safety Council. Established as a nonprofit in 1993 by both public and private sector interest groups, the council holds regular meetings and is quite an active organisation. Yet, in the past few years, despite numerous seminars, public education campaigns and high-level meetings — including a visit by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety — the road carnage continues.

The pressure on the country’s already struggling public health sector is intense. Crash victims account for a reported one in three emergency cases, with treatment costs spiralling into billions of Jamaican Dollars (just over US $7.1 million). Road crashes can also cause the country's Gross Domestic Product to dip by as much as three to four percent, according to the Kingston-based head of the Inter-American Development Bank in the Caribbean.

Although Jamaica's Road Traffic Act was passed in both houses of parliament in December 2018, regulations for the Act, which includes a list of new offences and increased penalties for breaches, have still not been completed and only some sections are enforced. The legislation, which extends to over 100 pages, is expected to be properly rolled out in early 2020.

The head of the Road Safety Unit at the Ministry of Transport and Mining, Kenute Hare, told Global Voices that in his view, the road safety problem is not just a matter of legislation and law enforcement — it’s a behavioural issue that needs to be addressed in a holistic fashion.

Hare also recently expressed alarm at what appears to be a negative, almost nihilistic “strong motorcycle culture“:

More psycho-social interventions are needed. If you talk to some of these motorcyclists, they place no value on life. They don’t care. It’s hard to tackle that kind of mindset. They have no love for themselves. We will achieve more if we can create a more orderly society. Also the institutional structures need to be looked at. Judges are giving discounts on road traffic tickets.

Such discounts pertained to drivers who amass large numbers of traffic tickets, some of whom were recently brought to court and ended up paying relatively small fines to settle hundreds of outstanding tickets.

The Ministry of Transport has calculated that at the present rate of road accidents, as many as 129 motorcyclists will be killed this year, compared to 100 in 2018.

Even celebrities are not immune. In 2017, a well-known Olympic athlete died while racing on the outskirts of the capital, Kingston. Despite a recent accident in the city, dancehall deejay Sizzla is also a motorbike enthusiast. At the country's 2019 Independence Day celebrations, the deejay made his entrance into the National Stadium with a convoy of motorbikes. He can often be seen doing motorbike stunts in his home community of August Town. A Facebook post noted:

This is not the first time that Sizzla Kalonji has been in a motorbike accident. Eight years ago, Sizzla was left with several broken bones after he was hit off his motorbike in Runaway St. Ann. At that time, he was airlifted from the St. Ann’s Bay hospital to a Kingston hospital.

Even with the observance of yet another World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims trying to raise awareness of road fatalities, for many, it is already too late.

Yet, hope springs eternal that that with new legislation and a deeper grasp of the issue by decision-makers, 2020 will be a better year.

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