Thursday, January 15, 2009

Furore over Helmet Law

Nigerians are a patently difficult people. We always look for excuses to beat any law made either for the good governance of the country or even for the enhancement of our personal welfare, safety and general well being. Ironically, even when compliance with a new law would neither cause us anything nor detract from our personal comfort, we still find one reason or the other to resist such well-intended regulations. A sure manifestation of this awkward tendency is the ongoing battle over the directive by the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) on crash helmets usage by motorcyclists, which took effect from January 1 and the various antics by both commercial motorcyclists and even their passengers to kill the new regulation on arrival.
Our inexplicable intransigence when it comes to obeying simple rules and regulations cuts across all facets of our national lives. We disobey simple traffic rules at will and at great consequence to ourselves and other road users; we flout basic building and town planning laws without qualms; basic personal hygiene tips are routinely disregarded and so do we disobey street trading laws that are made in our own interests to reduce road carnage and the menace of area boys who thrive in rowdy and chaotic situations.
It would appear that we are a compulsively incorrigible lot as we take delight in always undercutting every reasonable rule and regulation.
And this attitude is partly responsible for the systemic failure the nation currently witnesses in most areas. Most traffic gridlocks we experience in urban centres are caused by senseless disregard for simple traffic regulations by some motorists. For instance, an impatient driver would drive against traffic thereby obstructing on-coming vehicles and causing road accidents in the process; urban slums keep multiplying because of builders' disregard for basic building and town planning rules; most urban roads are bad because of incessant digging by people laying electricity/telecommunication cables and water pipes; NEPA/PHCN failure is mainly due to cable vandalization by unscrupulous Nigerian businessmen; pipe-borne water flow is often disrupted in most areas where it is available because of pipes' destruction by vandals.
Such pernicious attitude is also responsible for some personal/communal calamities and health hazards that have claimed many lives in the country in recent past. For instance, stubborn disregard for personal hygiene invariably leads to cholera and other epidemic outbreak; indiscriminate dumping of refuse in gutters lead to drainage blockage and this invariably cause urban flooding in the event of any slight rainfall; disregard for the use of quality building materials is the major cause of most building collapses that take several lives; and the various petroleum pipeline fire disasters we have so far witnessed in the country with their attendant massive fatalities, are the handiworks of selfish vandals.
Nigerians always call for change anytime a bad leader is foisted on the country but we always resist any simple initiative that is meant to improve our lives or prevent unnecessary disaster or mitigate its intensity when it occurs. For instance, when it was first introduced, the seat-belt rule was vehemently resisted by motorists who considered it an unnecessary burden. Before it sank in, many motorists were penalised for a law that is basically in their personal interest and which they ordinarily ought to embrace with enthusiasm. The monthly environmental sanitation exercise is one particular instance of total resistance by Nigerians. Since its inception during the Buhari/Idiagbon regime, hundreds of offenders who find the two-hour movement restriction from 7 am to 9 am during the exercise unpalatable are arrested and penalised every month. It is baffling that almost 24 years on, many Nigerians still find it difficult to come to terms with the sanitation law that is meant to enhance the cleanliness of our surroundings and so drastically reduce stench-related health hazards.
This type of senseless resistance to good laws is manifesting again in the on-going controversy surrounding the wearing of safety helmets by motorcyclists in the country. Worried by the high rate of motorcycle accidents-induced fatalities, the FRSC directed that as from January 1, it would be mandatory for every motorcyclist and the passenger to wear the protective crash helmet. This, according to the Commission, will at least protect the head from fatal brush with the hard surface of the road in case of accidents, which is a fairly frequent occurrence with commercial motorcycle (okada) riders.
However, it has been a tough battle enforcing compliance with this law since it took off about two weeks ago. Motorcyclists have devised various means of rubbishing the helmet law. While some don't want to wear it at all, some would not buy the specified and safe helmets, but would improvise with all sorts of funny hats ranging from head pans to hard hats used by construction workers and even paint buckets! Also, most motorbike passengers would not even want to hear anything about crash helmets let alone wearing them as they consider the protective headgears rather incongruous with their dressing. Weird tales of people disappearing after putting on the helmets are even bandied about in Lagos just to underscore our unwillingness to comply with the law.
But pray, what is bad in using a device that is bound to save our lives in case of okada accidents. There is no gainsaying the fact that most urban dwellers have woken up to the reality of the ubiquitous okada being an undeniable mode of transportation, in deed, a painfully convenient one at that. In the face of grossly inadequate and inefficient public transportation system, the okada has become a ready alternative, and a much swifter one at that. Even with its well known associated risks borne out of the operators' unruly road manners, this informal means of urban transportation has virtually supplanted the conventional commutter buses and taxi cabs as veritable means of public transportation system in most urban and even rural areas. This has underscored government's woeful failure in this crucial public service obligations to the people. Most urban and rural roads are mostly dilapidated and this is greatly impairing vehicular movements, which is the main reason why commercial vehicles shun most inner-city routes thereby giving commercial motorcyclists a field day.
To me, it is in the interest of okada riders – both the commercial operators and passengers – to cultivate the habit of using safety helmets as long as okada remains their preferred means of transportation in the absence of better and safer alternative.
But beyond the enforcement of this crash helmet law, something urgent must be done about the parlous state of urban transportation and mostly dilapidated urban roads in the country. It is really a shame that nearly 50 years after independent, Nigeria cannot boast of efficient intra-city mass transportation and commuters still have to depend on motorbikes, with its attendant risks, for daily transportation. This is why it is apposite for the government to fix most bad intra-city roads to open them up for commuter buses and launch aggressive mass transit schemes to ease the daily hassles faced by commuters who at the end of the day mostly have no choice than risk their lives hitch-hiking on okada.
The efforts of the Raji Fashola administration in Lagos State in these two areas are worthy of commendation. For, not only is his BRT initiative bringing visible transportation succour to Lagosians, his aggressive opening up of several inner city streets along with the banishing of street trading and uprooting of illegal roadside stalls, has made it possible for commuter buses and taxi cabs to access roads that were no-go areas few months back. But he has to do more to achieve total success. And with that, okada's relevance in the area of mass transit would become a non-issue.
But in the meantime, it is bad law to think of banning okada, like it is being tried in Rivers State, if you cannot provide any visible and affordable means of transporting the people