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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Traffic Woes: I really can drive... but I don't!

I can drive. I've had my permit for a long time. In past years, I've had my friend Donnie's cars at ready disposal. But for the last few years, I've opted not to own or operate a vehicle. That I've done for a two main reasons.

The first is that I don't have to. I live within half an hour's brisk walk of where I work. It's not necessary for me to move around very much for work either.

Given my regular range of movement, it's simply not necessary for me to spend the money on a car - loan payments, insurance, fuel costs and maintenance. It is way more cost effective - financially and otherwise - to take hired transport. It makes no sense at all for me to pull out of my driveway on a morning and immediately into traffic.

When I do have to get around outside of Port of Spain though, there's either public transportation or my friend Derek's fantastic taxi service. (His drivers are the only ones I know of that can get me from Port of Spain to Piarco in 40-minutes with rain-slowed after-work traffic on the highway, all without speeding or driving illegally...)

The other reason that I've decided not to drive is that, quite frankly, Trinidadian's on the road today scare me.

Every other day you hear about some driver losing control of their vehicle, jumping the median and landing on top of someone else's car. You hear eyewitnesses lined off along the middle of the highway when the media arrive talking about a car that fled the scene having given someone else a "bad drive" that led to a four-car six-fatality smash up.

I've seen young people - and older ones too - peel up the wrong side of the road to overtake traffic, six, eight and ten cars at a time. I've seen people frankomen turn down my one-way up-street in broad daylight. I sat and looked on with disbelief as drivers seek to force their way in front of 45-seater PTSC buses at the intersection of Broadway and South Quay.

A recent Newsday story - Car Falls from Flyover - near took the cake. While, thank Providence, the car did the car drop on someone else's vehicle, the driver somehow found a way to top the Evil Knievel aerobatics of others.

I do have great sympathy for the victims of recent accidents and for the surviving families and friends. But I'm left to wonder how fast one has to be travelling to look down at your stereo one second and then not have enough time to keep your car from folding around a road divider. How fast does a vehicle have to be moving to jump a median and a lane of traffic to land atop someone's bonnet two lanes away? What was the driver doing to be able to push a concrete barrier out of the way and fall onto the highway below?

Thankfully, the Parliament has started us on the path toward safer roadways with the passage of the breathalyser legislation, and putting into law formal means by which some indisciplined drivers may lose their permits.

But that's just the beginning, because we have several more problems on the roads with which to contend.

There are persons who seem to believe that they can drive while talking animatedly on their cell phones, even though they're hard pressed to walk a straight line and hold a conversation at the same time.

The number of cars on the roads today, itself a problem, causes multiple problems that most might not consider. Gridlock is one. Poisonous atmospheric clouds hovering low over our city centres is another. Severe motorist frustration, leading to critical errors in judgement, is a third.

A driver sitting in stand-still or dead-slow traffic for a lengthy period is more likely to speed at the first sign of open road. And that can lead to other problems.

Older and experienced drivers will tell you that power steering is both a blessing and a curse. It's a boon in that it makes a car easier to drive. But it can quickly become a curse when a driver pulls hard on the steering to get out of a situation. At speed, the vehicle can overcompensate and it then stand to become the fatal flying death machine that is now so commonplace.

Cars today are also lighter too and less able to handle their own speed. They don't sit as solidly on the road like the Avenger, Cortina and Hunter of yesteryear. Simple side drafts cause today's Sentra, Almera and 323 to drift on the highways. Many drivers will admit to feeling their cars float on their tires from time to time, leading to a momentary loss of full control.

One commenter felt too that on top of being too fast for their weight, some pre-owned vehicles coming into the country might be defective.

Even with all those factors in play, persons today are taught to drive at speeds well below the legal limit. Required driver's education also does not include defensive driving tactics. They are then let loose on the nation's roadways unsupervised. It is highly likely therefore that many drivers aren't able to handle a car that is travelling even a little too fast and running quickly up into a situation.

Gone are the days though that a driver could hit their brakes hard and then come out having only to buy a bumper and wear a neck brace for a few weeks.

The day of the straightener/painter also appears to be over. Instead, we have wrecks so bad that you can't tell what kind of car was involved.

What's to be done then? The Breathalyser legislation is a start, but there's much more that needs doing. I'll share my ideas on that in a subsequent article.

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