One of the things I have had to do in recent times was to renew my driver’s licence. This took me to the headquarters of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) in Abuja. The procedure requires the applicant’s presence: forms to be filled, fees to be paid, fingerprinting to be done, and so, that was how I found myself in the expansive and impressive premises of the FRSC Headquarters. It turned to be a memorable experience. In-between the processing of my papers, I was handed over to a young officer in the digitalized command centre at the Headquarters, to give me a brief overview of the operations of the FRSC. I considered this a special privilege, but it turned out that the FRSC opens its doors to visitors seeking information, because just as I was stepping out of the room after almost 45 minutes of briefing, another group of visitors including journalists, were led into the command centre for their own briefing session. I could not fail to notice the fact that the operations of the FRSC are highly modernized and digitalized.
This is a sign of progress and growth because that was not always the case. When the idea of the creation of a special unit for road safety, separate from the Police Department, gained ground in the 70s, this was in response to the enormous carnage on Nigerian roads. Professor Wole Soyinka who suggested the idea to the Oyo State Government has written about how the Ibadan-Ife road had become a death trap for the students and lecturers at the then University of Ife. He would later take on the leadership role of sensitizing the Nigerian public to the evil of road rage, mobilizing volunteers to go onto the road to check drivers, or to assist accident victims. In later years, he became the pioneer Chairman of the Federal Road Safety Corps. In those early days, road safety officers relied on their raw courage, and few equipment, but they were a truly inspired group.
The need for road safety in Nigeria cannot be overstated. Over the years, so many lives and limbs have been lost on the roads. Today, Nigeria has a network of 204, 000 kilometres of paved and unpaved roads, with 12.76 million registered motor vehicles and motorcycles at the ratio of 57% and 43% respectively. Between 1960 and 2015, a total of 1,521, 601 casualties were recorded on our roads. Road traffic cases were particularly most serious between 1976 and 1993, with casualty figures consistently exceeding 30, 000 per annum. Established in 1988, FRSC claims in its annual reports that casualty figures on Nigerian roads have been on a downward trend. This conclusion must be in terms of relative figures in direct proportion to population. For, whereas total casualty figure as reported was 11,299 in 1960, it was 38, 059 in 2014 and 32, 826 in 2015. In 1960 Nigeria’s population was 45.2 million; today, it is about 183.5 million, with more vehicles on the roads.
No one can question the wisdom behind the setting up of this strategic agency and due credit must be given to the founding fathers, the successive administrations that have built up the agency and international organisations like the World Bank, which have provided necessary support. In 1988, the FRSC had a staff strength of just about 300, today it has over 19, 000 workers on its payroll, and it is able to make its presence felt on all Nigerian roads. It is better equipped; its staff are better motivated, and it has attracted a large number of volunteers, also known as Special Marshals who at critical moments step in to act as traffic control officials. According to the FRSC, deaths on Nigerian roads per 100, 000 was 9.0 in 1990; over the next 15 years, this was reduced to 3.62.
Whereas a total number of 8, 154 persons were killed on Nigerian roads in 1990, the number had reduced to 5, 044 in 2015. But perhaps the biggest area of achievement has been in the fact that more people today are apprehended for traffic offences. Between January and June 2014, about 258, 538 traffic offenders were apprehended nationwide; and for the same period in 2015 – 254, 203 persons. In the various reports, the states with the highest cases of traffic offences and fatalities are Kaduna, FCT, Ogun, Kogi, Oyo, Nasarawa, and Edo in that order while the states with the least incidents are Borno, Bayelsa, Yobe, Ekiti, Taraba, Abia, and Akwa Ibom.
It is refreshing that over the years the FRSC has been able to generate such significant data on road safety and fatalities in Nigeria. When I visited the control centre, many uniformed officers were busy behind telephones and computers, receiving information from the public and satellite command centres across Nigeria. Two large screens in the room provided real live indication of accident cases in all the six traffic corridors into which the country has been divided. I was told, and a live demonstration was used to illustrate the claim, that once there is a reported accident in any part of the country, the information is relayed to the nearest FRSC Command for immediate action, all the way up to the National Headquarters which monitors the dispatch of the nearest FRSC patrol team in that corridor on a rescue mission. The officer told me that the FRSC has the capacity to get to the scene of any road accident within minutes, because its men are all over Nigerian roads. I didn’t expect him to say anything otherwise. He was marketing his organization and he would of course tell me all the good things. But I wondered: how many Nigerians know the toll free emergency numbers to call in the event of an accident?
I completed the processing of my driver’s licence. And when it was time to take my leave, I was given some reading materials. A careful perusal would offer more information: the FRSC Call centre receives on the average a total of 258 calls per month on road traffic crashes, and most of these calls are made between June and December. It is as if Nigerians get more reckless on the roads as the year comes to an end. Then the vehicles mostly involved in road crashes are cars, followed by motorcycles, minibuses and trucks, while the principal causes are over-speeding, loss of control and dangerous driving.
On the whole, a lot still needs to be done to curtail road traffic crashes in Nigeria and to check the menace of dangerous driving; the area of challenge is in deepening the prevention strategies of the FRSC and similar organisations that have been set up by state governments such as LASTMA in Lagos and TRACE in Ogun state. A team of Road Safety experts from Nigeria are scheduled to proceed on a two-year deployment to Sierra Leone, which is encouraging, but before we begin to do Father Christmas across Africa with what has been achieved so far, we must never lose sight of the fact that the quoted statistics of persons killed or injured on Nigerian roads is not just cold data, but human lives. Nigerian motorists need to be constantly reminded that they cannot be allowed to either commit suicide or kill others.
It is certainly not surprising that over-speeding is the major cause of accidents on our roads. The FRSC and similar organisations at the state level must insist on the observance of speed limits and impose the stiffest penalties on offenders. It is always very scary driving on any road in Nigeria. Most of our motorists, commercial or private, behave as if the best way to handle a vehicle is to exhaust the speedometer. Speed bumps on inner city roads have made little or no difference. Even when persons are not driving under the influence, they just like to speed. Each time I see any major road being dualized, I immediately think in terms of the number of lives that will be claimed by the road once it is completed. Every person behind the wheels on our roads is a potential Formula One participant.
The commercial drivers are worse. They drive dangerously and lose control, because in any case, they are half of the time, completely drunk. Every motor park has a nearby section where alcohol is openly sold. In between trips, the drivers worship at theparaga and ogogoro shrine, and get thoroughly inebriated before they jump behind the wheels. State governments and the FRSC must liaise with the Nigerian Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and the Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) to enforce the ban on the sale of alcohol at motor parks across the country; pro-active steps should also be taken to check drunk driving. In some other parts of the world, motorists are routinely stopped and asked to take a breath or sobriety test. We need that here.
Nigerians like to break the law, or test it. When the compulsory use of seat belts was introduced, it was quite a battle getting people to comply. In the same manner, they may resist the observance of speed limits, but this must be strictly enforced. Loss of control while driving, is caused not only by drunkenness, but also the abuse of cell phones. The way some people treat cell phones like a toy is unbelievable. Even while driving, they use one hand to hold a phone; the other hand is on the steering, while their mouth is engaged in animated conversation and their ears in a listening mode. Engaged in such a delicate task as driving, they are nevertheless distracted. I have seen many suicidal drivers on our highways, chatting on phone and going at top speed. This must be addressed.
The various FRSC reports didn’t dwell much on the roadworthiness of vehicles on Nigerian roads. Half of the vehicles out there are imported, used vehicles with broken down parts and bad tyres. Nigerian motorists are not likely to change tyres until the tyres burst, and of course, very few buy new tyres. Roadworthiness checks must not be voluntary or optional but compulsory. The roads are also bad. Bad roads don’t make for safe driving. And to worsen it all: many motorists don’t bother to go to driving schools or take driving tests, and they have no driver’s license. They learn to drive by accident; they have no knowledge of road signs and traffic rules. They drive all the same and cause accidents. The FRSC should seek the enabling powers to ensure that certain traffic offenders are banned for life from driving on our roads. That is the surest way to reduce road carnage.
You can follow Dr. Reuben Abati on Twitter @abati1990