Today marks the end of United Nations Road Safety Week and while Bahamians proved once again to be among the world’s most eager population to sign an online safe driving pledge, one segment of the motoring population apparently did not get the message – jitney drivers.
The change in jitney driver behaviour in recent months has been startling. It is as though all the pent-up frustration of being on the road all day, everyday, exploded and those who once were required to at least feign courtesy escaped from the shackles of decorum.
Jitneys, carrying up to 32 passengers whose lives are in their hands, are zig-zagging through the streets, stopping where they want, in the middle of the road, going from 30 mph to screech to stop for a single passenger, turning right from a left lane, leaving the fellow in the car next to the swerving bus unsure whether to thank God for life or ask the devil to carry off the jitney and its driver.
Is there a political transport storm brewing that we are unaware of or are public transportation drivers taking out their frustration on an unsuspecting public? We have never seen, nor have we ever experienced, the kind of out of control driving we have encountered recently.
Example from reports coming to this paper in a single day: a jitney loaded nearly to capacity, is in the right lane on East Bay Street heading east on a Friday afternoon in the highly congested area between Scotiabank, Luciano’s and Baha Retreat. It stops suddenly, causing a chain reaction among cars behind and to the side, every one slamming on brakes as a man - who is on the left side of the road - ambles across the carriageway talking into his cell, to board the bus illegally awaiting his arrival on the right.
Jitneys in The Bahamas are equipped with doors to open on the left side to allow passengers to enter and exit from a curb or bus stop. The bus stopped in the middle of a crowded, busy street on the wrong side of the road.
The same individual who described that thoughtless act witnessed another incident at the top of the Shirley Street hill next to Government House. Two jitney buses were side by side on the opposite side of the western end of Shirley Street, separated by the newsstand on the jib planted with flowers by the pleasant man on crutches wearing black who has created one of Nassau’s unplanned sweet street scenes. As the light turned green, the jitney on the right that should have been headed north on Cumberland Street toward Bay Street spun around, turned left, headed south, cutting off the jitney in the left lane and drove against the traffic to the corner and cut over to West Hill Street.
Drivers were too stunned and shaken to move.
It is little wonder the average driver who spends any time on the road comes home at the end of a day with a pain in the arm. Specialists call it a death grip from hanging on so tightly to the steering wheel.
There is no reason for this road rudeness to exist in Nassau. We understand the harsh reality in other places. According to the United Nations and the FIA - the governing body of motor sports which is also the leader in road safety - a child is killed every 10 seconds somewhere in the world on his or her way to school. We have seen the official video and it is a frightening picture, children darting across major highways, or long stretches of land with no road markings unsuspecting trucks barreling without regard to speed.
But we have rules in The Bahamas and we have police officers, even those assigned specifically to traffic. We have a Minister of Transport, Frankie Campbell, who spent 29 years on the police force and has said road safety is his priority because he has pulled more mangled bodies out of crashed cars than he ever wants to recall. He has formed at least two road safety committees and pulled in talent, including the FIA Director of Development for the Caribbean and Bahamas, David McLaughlin.
The problem is not merely the drivers who are out of control. It is a system out of whack. Because the jitney business is competitive, drivers stop wherever, whenever they can to make the $1.75 fare.
There has been talk over the years of a unified system with an 80 percent ownership through an IPO allowing the public to hold shares and 20 percent ownership by government. Various forms of legislation and policy have been introduced but the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that something needs to be done. The last figures we have seen are 13 years old when there were a reported 790 franchises valued at that time at $12.3m.
When hundreds compete for a single route, we are creating a dog eat dog world and we are equipping those dogs with machinery that can maim or kill. What do we expect from what we created and have allowed to exist all these years? Compare our unruly system with the role of London’s double decker red buses and then consider the mess we face in New Providence where public transportation is often the only means of transport, including for children getting to and from school.
Not all jitney drivers are rude and many go out of their way to be polite. But all jitney drivers in New Providence operate under a system that does not work, saddled with legacy favouritism issues and complicated by modern congestion and competition. This is a problem with a fix.
Let us mark the 2018 UN Road Safety Week by pledging to put the brakes on a situation that is turning the streets of New Providence into the wild, wild west and roll out a plan that all of us can live and drive with safely and with pride.