No, Minister, this is a national emergency
Renée Ming was asked this week if she thought the spike in road deaths was a national emergency.
The Minister of National Security refused to go that far, saying instead that it was an “extreme concern”, which was an oddly precise exercise in parsing.
These are the facts:
• If the present rate of fatalities continues, Bermuda will certainly meet or exceed the 17 road deaths that set the record for this century.
• That same number (17) occurred in 1998 and in 1983, while the all-time number of road deaths occurred in 1975 when 26 people lost their lives
• Bermuda has the dubious distinction of being among the 60 most dangerous countries in the world on a per-capita basis with a fatality rate of 24.6 people per 100,000 population. In the Americas, only four countries are worse and in the Caribbean, only the Dominican Republic is
• Bermuda considers itself a developed nation. Among its major trading partners, the US has a per-capita road death rate of 10.9 people per 100,000. Canada’s rate is five. Britain’s is 2.42 — one tenth of Bermuda’s
If this is not a national emergency, then it should be. In any event, it is a national shaming, compounded by no one seeming to care. If 16 people were murdered in the course of 11 months, people would be surely calling for action. Why should the loss of life on the roads be viewed less seriously?
In fact, previous governments did take them seriously. After almost all of those previous spikes, action was taken. In 1975, helmets were finally made mandatory for motorcycle riders. In 1983, the Breathalyser was introduced. In 1998, seatbelts were made compulsory. In 2018, one year after 16 people died on the roads, roadside sobriety checkpoints were introduced.
Ms Ming said she prayed there would not be a seventeenth death this year. But prayer is not enough. Once again, Bermuda needs action and it needs it now — not after a study, followed by a policy paper, followed by a working group, followed by more consultation.
The problem and its causes are obvious and the solutions have been available for years.
The island’s narrow roads are designed for low speeds, but the speed limit is routinely ignored and there is little enforcement effort from the police, Operation Vega notwithstanding.
The vast majority of fatalities occur on motorcycles, especially among younger, inexperienced riders. Project Ride, which is mandatory for 16-year-olds, is a start but only a start. Riders get no formal road training on bikes before they get their licences and while there are restrictions on engine sizes and when they can be ridden, the sheer lack of experience of most riders helps to explain why so many people are killed and injured.
Bermuda does not take drink-driving seriously. Roadside sobriety checks are a proven deterrent but are staged too rarely. And when they are staged, the police are obliged to tell people where they will be. While they have had an effect on bar business when they have been used, the reality is that many people plan their entertainment around them rather than using public transport or designated drivers.
And public transport is woefully inadequate, especially in the evenings and after midnight. If buses and taxis were readily available, more people would use them to get around. Instead, they ride bikes and drive cars, putting themselves and others at risk.
People do not seem to care. Does every family in Bermuda have to lose a loved one before people take notice? The Bermuda Road Safety Council is tasked with persuading people to take more care on the roads. A monthly press release with a cute wordplay theme is not enough. A hard-hitting public relations campaign making it clear that people are dying and that behaviours have to change will make a difference.
If the problems are obvious, then some of the solutions are as well.
Bermuda has been talking about speed cameras for 25 years and has failed to implement them, and yet they are also a proven means of preventing speeding and dangerous driving. What is stopping us? Is there some inherent idea that the devices are somehow cheating or that people have an inherent right to speed? Do politicians think they will lose votes?
The point of speed cameras is not to catch people; it is to deter them from speeding in the first place. Success comes when no one is caught speeding because no one was exceeding the speed limit.
Project Ride must be improved. Riding a bike around a parking lot for an hour or so on a few weekends and lunchtimes is not enough. Project Ride needs to be improved where riders are taken out on the roads in supervised groups and actually learn what it is like to ride on the roads.
The graduated licensing scheme also needs to be improved. Probationary riders who cause accidents or who break the law should lose their licences for longer periods of time. None of this is new; this newspaper has called for graduated licensing schemes for years.
Insurance premiums should be tied to driver behaviour. Drivers who are caught speeding or breaking other rules of the road should be hit with higher insurance premiums. Good drivers should be rewarded with lower premiums. Younger riders should pay higher premiums for their vehicle licences; it is proven they are more likely to be in accidents. Again, these premiums could be reduced based on good behaviour.
Roadside sobriety checks need to become a regular feature of police work and the requirement that they be publicised in advance should be dropped. Whatever deterrent effect this had is not working.
How many more people have to die — or be crippled for life — until Bermuda stops the madness?