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Dr. Kayode Olagunju is the Sector Commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) in Rivers State. In this interview with ANAYO ONUKWUGHA, he speaks on Nigerian drivers and efforts of the agency to maintain sanity on the roads.

How can you describe the average Nigerian driver on the road?

An average Nigerian driver is aggressive. An average Nigerian driver believes that nothing will happen to him even when he blind-folds himself and drives in the night. An average Nigerian driver believes that he knows it all even – when he does not know. He puts the blame of every road crash on the other person, not him. Whenever there is a crash, the average Nigerian driver does not see his own fault, rather, he sees the fault of the other person, and he puts the blame on him. That is a major issue. When that driver dies through dangerous overtaking, the family also believes that the wicked had done their worst. They believe that it is one man or one witch that did juju that killed him: not the wrong overtaking that he did; not using a vehicle that is not road worthy; not using a vehicle with a defective brake that killed him. So, every death is explained. Every injury is explained, every crash is explained, and every blame goes to either government or the next person and not the driver who decided to use his vehicle with one headlamp in the night and was mistaken for a motorcycle while meeting a trailer. That is how I see the average Nigerian driver.

If you go into motor parks now, you will see people selling alcohol and most of the people who patronise them are drivers; what is the FRSC doing to stop the sale of alcohol in motor parks in the country?

We are trying out best. We have an approach to that particular issue. One, we identified that the motor parks are owned or operated by the local government, which means we must continue to engage the local governments to stop the issuing of licence to sellers of alcohol at motor parks. They make small money from that, but we cannot quantify just one live lost compared to the amount they make from the parks.

Some states have made laws to ban the sale of alcohol in the motor parks while some are in the process of doing that. We need to engage the local governments and the state Houses of Assembly because they state legislators will also assist in this regard. Again, we also collaborate with National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). Incidentally, the FRSC in Rivers State is very close to the NDLEA here. So, we will also work together to ensure that those involved in this kind of arrangement are arrested and prosecuted.

We also use public enlightenment. It is like you talk to the driver, you talk to the passengers. We tell the passengers: 'don't let anybody kill you'; 'don't board a vehicle when you are sure that the driver is drunk'. When that is done, that drunk driver will not have passengers. Then, we also use the drivers to say: 'Oh! your life and that of others depend on your action and when you are driving under the influence of alcohol, ordinarily, it is like you are inviting crashes. You are an accident waiting to happen. You are a time bomb waiting to explode'. So, we let them that they are valued by their loved ones so they don't need to waste their lives on the highway.

Then, we also use what is known as enforcement. That is when we actually wait on the road and get some of them. We have what we use to measure the blood alcohol concentration, that is, the level of alcohol in their blood or the level of alcohol in their breath. So, anyone that is arrested is prosecuted, which means, we are also using the enforcement aspect.

There is also a scheme that was introduced by the FRSC; it was launched September 2007 by the President. We are talking about Road Transport Safety Standardization Scheme, which basically deals with the standards – the safety conscious levels of fleet operators. While the enforcement is to wait for those who misbehave, especially, those who drink and drive. The RTSS Scheme actually attempts to block that driver from getting on the roads. It means drunk drivers will not have access of getting to the roads. He knows that when he gets to the roads, he can be arrested. We use the RTSS Scheme to properly enlighten fleet operators of what they should do in terms of safety standards. We use that to also make sure that they enforce safety standards put together by the government.

Every September, the FRSC organises the 'Ember Months Campaigns' across the country; what is the main reason behind this yearly ritual?

Basically, it is to ensure that we have safe passage in all the roads during the months we refer as Ember Months. These months are the ones ending with – mber, that is September, October, November and December. We know this is the period of the year when a huge volume of movement takes place on the roads. This is the period of the year when the rate of crashes on the roads will be on the increase if not properly managed. We also know that this is the period of the year that succeeds the rainy season when a lot of construction work will be going on in many of the roads; a lot of repairs will be done. If that is not properly managed, it can result to traffic crashes. There are situations where construction equipment and materials are abandoned on the highway without proper warning, where there could be diversion here and there and people may not be familiar with such.

Then, we also know that this is the period of the year when hammattan sets in and we all know that hammattan could impede on visibility, and when visibility is poor, the chances of getting involved in road traffic crashes will also be on the increase. A lot of people will travel from one point to the other. People will leave their work places to go to places of celebrations. A lot of people will go to their villages; they will want to go for Christmas or New Year celebrations. Many of them may no longer be familiar with the road condition. You have a situation where probably the last time Mr. John left Abuja for Port Harcourt was around this time last year and he is no longer familiar with the road condition. We also have people who want to go to the villages and so on; may be, they have acquired new status, may be, they have acquired new vehicles which they want to show off in the villages. Many of them may not be that perfect to drive in those vehicles and that could also be a problem.

Then, for commercial vehicle operators, the end of the year is when a lot of people what to put monetary considerations above human safety and comfort. That is why you find them over-loading their vehicles. That is why you find many of them not giving adequate attention to their vehicles, which means maintenance could be neglected. This is the period of the year when commercial vehicle operators, especially fleet owners, want turn over as fast as possible. You see them wake up very early in the morning and they don't get back home until late in the night and they drive while they are fatigued. That could also be a problem.

Then, we appreciate the fact that a lot of people have certain beliefs and some of them are not in line with safety issues. If you go to certain parts of the country, they will be sacrificing and doing all sort of things to ward off crashes. We also have a situation where even those of us who are Christians or Muslims, rather than doing what is correct on the highway, rather than obeying certain rules and regulations on the highway, people want to rebuke crashes saying: 'Oh, it will never happen to me in Jesus' name', 'Oh, I pray five times daily, with that I cannot be involved in an accident'. It is only those who protect themselves very well that the God will guard. That is one thing they forget; if you close your eyes while you are driving on the road, you are inviting crashes and we know God will not come out to protect you in such situation.

We also have a situation where a lot of people have this wrong notion that whatever happens, people must die in 'ember' months. But, to us in FRSC, those months are mere calendar months and they are there just like other months. Safety is the function of positive attitudes which you should imbibe on the road while you do away with the negative ones. If you do certain things that are not safety-compliant, sometimes, you see crashes. Then, again, this issue of destiny; they will tell you that certain people are destined to die on the road and since they are not destined to die or they road, they can do anything on the road. We also use the medium to disabuse their minds on such. We tell people, if you feel that you are not destined to die on the highway, then, blindfold yourself and walk on a very busy highway for about three, four minutes. Since you are not destined to die on the highway, every driver will give way to you. They will park for you and allow you to continue with your madness. Then, we also tell people, if you also believe that you are not destined to die in the water, go, and jump from the bridge. That means the angels will spread their wings and allow you not to plunge into water.

What we are doing in essence is to let people know that their safety lies in their hands. Then, we have all these unfulfilled aspirations. You know at the beginning of the year, so many people will set certain targets. Many of these targets, in actual fact, may not be realistic: – 'Oh! This year, I must change this car'; this year, I must build a new house; this year, I must marry a new wife' – they will set many targets but at the end of the year, they will discover the year was ending and those targets were not realizable. That is when they will start moving up and down to fulfill some of these aspirations. They actually neglect safety values.

Then, we have a situation where so many people who are not qualified to be on the highway are driving their selves. They make part of what we call, 'I go drive myself'. We are not even sure if they are properly licensed or they got their licences through the back door. So, in essence, the 'Ember Month Campaign' is to identify all these issues that are not in line with safety considerations, address them and properly enlighten the road users on some of these issues. We disabuse their minds on certain beliefs. We are not quarrelling with their faith, we are not quarrelling with certain beliefs: if you are a Muslim and you pray five times a day, no problem; if you are a traditionalist and you make sacrifices to the god of iron, no problem, but while you are doing all these, also imbibe the safety rules and regulations.Obey safety rules and regulations in addition to whatever belief that you have. We are not forcing people to belong to any particular group or forsake any particular belief. Whatever you are doing, please, understand the rules of the road and obey them.

Then, we also know that a lot of people may not be conversant with the road; that affords us the opportunity to go round to educate them on the road signs. We tell you that you are the only sane man on the highway and should consider every other driver on the highway as a mad man. You know that at a bend you are not expected to over-take, that is the rule. You should also know that as a defensive driver, the other man may not know that you are not expected to overtake at a bend. The other man may be aware but just decided to take that dangerous risk. When you are on that bend and you are not expected to overtake, let your mind tell you that the mad man may come from the other lane, who will leave his own lane to meet you on your lane. That is why we say you should see every other man on the highway as a mad man while you are the only sane man. Articulate, count and believe that any other driver can do anything that will put you in trouble.

Then, we tell you that I you are driving in the built-up areas, you have to be very careful. They should look with their eyes and see with their mind. It is said that behind every ball is a boy. You are driving in the town and a ball crosses the road, you know that the boy will run after his ball. What you will do is immediately you see the ball cross the road, you must slow down immediately because it is possible that the boy is pursuing the ball. So look with your eyes and actually see with your mind. Those are some of the things we do during the 'ember' month campaign. We go from one park to another to let them understand it; we go to churches and mosques and various religious houses to know why they must be safety conscious all the time. We create awareness by having floats or carnival on the highways; we use the opportunity to distribute hand bills, posters and we do all sorts of things to ensure that people understand why they should be safety conscious during the 'ember' months.

What has the Ember Month Campaign contributed to the reduction of road accidents in the country, especially during ember months?

Yes, it has really contributed to that. You know when we talk about crash reduction, we have absolute figures. We don't just talk like 'we recorded five road accidents last year and three this year'. We look into other things. The person you have just spoken to about road accident is looking sober and will be very careful on the road. Probably, you have saved his life. Even that time you were using to talk to him could be the time he will use to imbibe the culture of obeying safety rules and avoid getting to certain dangers ahead. Then, we go into a lot of enforcement. For example, in just about a week in Rivers State here, we prosecuted 189 drivers before four mobile courts. 176, out of the 189 were convicted by the mobile courts while only 13 of them were discharged and acquitted. So, that will also create a very positive impression in the minds of the people. People are now becoming very careful when they are driving into Rivers State or Port Harcourt because you are going to be arrested and prosecuted and when you are prosecuted, you stand the risk of going to jail. Those that were convicted had an option of fine, ranging from N1,000 to N30,000. They also had jail terms of between one month and six months. There, they had the option of fine. Our law clearly states that you could have both fine and jail term.

So, we only had few sittings and we will continue to have that. In Port Harcourt here, the mobile court was presided over by Senior Magistrate Kilsi Giadom and, at his last sitting, 60 drivers were convicted by him. Then, we have another one at Isiokpo, under Magistrate Ogeh Elkanah and he also convicted 39 drivers at the last sitting. So, the third mobile court was located at Eleme where Senior Magistrate Collins Ali convicted 43 drivers while another mobile court at Ahoada where Chief Magistrate Sokari Andrew-Jaja convicted 35 drivers at a sitting.

So, in just four sittings within a week, 176 drivers were convicted. The message is everywhere that you must be very careful. When you are in the roads in this area, you must obey the rules and regulations or you will also be prosecuted. I think now, the level of awareness is on the increase. The level of awareness on safety values is on the increase, up to the level that if you don't obey the rules and regulations, you would be arrested.

When you tell a child not to touch a pressing iron – that it will hurt him and the child goes ahead to touch it, what will happen? The pressing iron will burn him. So, we are using public enlightenment to tell the people to please, obey the rules and regulations. We try to speak your language; we try to talk to you in a convincing manner for you to understand that you have to save your own life. You have to preserve your own life while you are on the highway. But, if you don't obey the advice we are giving to you, by obeying the Highway Code, then, we will use the other one – the stick – which is arrest and prosecution. I think we have been achieving something in that area.