The news of the death of boxer Jizelle Salandy and the injuries sustained by national footballer Tamara Watson only add to a prevailing sense of tragedy on the roads of Trinidad and Tobago. Just a few days before, an automobile crash threatened the careers of two of this country's track stars, Richard Thompson and Monique Cabral. In the first week of the new year, there are already two fatalities on the books and the loss of Salandy, a young boxer with an unblemished record of wins, is particularly painful. The Arrive Alive campaign has done much to bring the issue of road safety back into public discourse, and to heighten awareness of hot-button issues like drunk driving.
If, however, there is anything at all that a troubled nation can take away from the disturbing news of the last week, it is the need to drive the message of careful and defensive driving deeper into the public psyche. Among its many warnings about crime in Trinidad and Tobago, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office cautions: "The standard of driving in Trinidad and Tobago is erratic. Road accidents leading to fatalities are a regular occurrence." On his blog, Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), noted about his visit to Trinidad and Tobago in December, 2008: "According to Thursday's Trinidad Guardian, in a little box headlined 'Mr. Death' showing an image of the Grim Reaper, there have been over 250 (actually 226 at that point) road fatalities this year in T&T.
"By just one comparison, Northern Ireland, which this year had one of its safest years ever, has around 120 fatalities–with a population some 600,000 larger. The reasons are not hard to imagine: There are many two-lane, non-divided highways in the country, which people drive at routinely high speeds (life seems relaxed everywhere except the roads)." The reasons for the high incidence of accidents and road fatalities are well known; a culture that endorses speeding and a lax appreciation of the rules of the road and the lingering machismo of drinking and driving. The tragedy of Jizelle Salandy's passing and the near misses that have spared Thompson, Cabral and others who have survived mishaps on the road recently, should serve as a caution for the upcoming Carnival season, which will run for potentially dangerous weeks.
While previous efforts at road safety education have been enthusiastic and laudable, real changes in national attitudes to road safety will only come when people start talking to each other about the consequences of dangerous driving behaviour. Those conversations need to begin among young people, the sector of society most likely to be out late at night, driving fast cars and in a state of diminished judgment. Stakeholders interested in minimising risk on the road and Government agencies and ministries with a focus on the young should encourage popular young personalities to make road safety and sound judgment when driving in risky situations part of their conversations with their audiences, colleagues and friends.
Young people with a leadership role in communities, schools and groups should be encouraged to set an example and spread positive word of the value of key safety issues like designated drivers, defensive driving techniques and the need to respect the safety of passengers over matters of ego or style. Through our youth newspaper, GIENetwork, the Guardian stands ready to play our part in delivering a message of safety and due diligence on the road to young people vulnerable to the temptations and enthusiasms of driving during the Carnival season. A reduction in the number of people killed on the nation's roads requires an all-out national effort that touches everyone in this society, in order to forestall the loss and injury of valuable young lives.