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Opinions of Sunday, 20 January 2013

Columnist: Atuahene, Kwame Koduah

The Law, Unhealthy Drivers and Road Safety

By Kwame Koduah Atuahene Esq*.

The issue of our safety in all spheres of public space continues to gain currency coming after very disturbing experiences of recent in the nature of fire, work place and road safety.

Our national consciousness and orientation on safety generally appears very stumpy such that we pretend to be concerned after every major disaster while returning to sleep without pushing for reforms that will offer some protection to the vulnerable. I just pray that we are not caught unawares when the next major road traffic crash is occasioned by a driver who suffers a seizure of a medical kind while on duty.

It has become customary these days to subject potential employees to some medical examination often as the last step of the hiring process in both private and public environments to ascertain whether or not their health profile can best suit the demands of the jobs on offer.

According to the National Road Safety Commission, road transportation accounts for about 97% of our transport needs, yet our national attitude is one of disregard when it comes to the health and general working condition of the Ghanaian driver.

In the public sector, though he has responsibility over a very expensive vehicle and manages the safety of the highly regarded and skilful public official the driver ends up the least paid employee. The situation is worse with public service transport drivers (commercial drivers).

On the average, 23% of all road traffic fatalities affect occupants of buses/passenger ranking second to pedestrians (42%) in the most vulnerable road user class in Ghana. In a recent study conducted by the National Road Safety Commission on the “Condition of Service of Commercial Drivers and its impact on Road Safety”, to possibly understand this situation much better, the study revealed among others that;

1. Commercial drivers get remunerated far below the minimum wage and take to faster speeds in order to make some money in excess of their daily targets at the risk of their lives and that of their passengers.

2. Commercial drivers work in poor conditions without rest or the benefit of taking an annual leave and are always stressed from the pressure to meet high demands of the employers.

3. Long hours of work were found to keep commercial drivers away from their families. This cause them to live under poor conditions on the road, exposed to dangers of contracting diseases, exposed to theft and other forms of physical and emotional health challenges such as fatigue, sleeplessness, waist pains, chronic headaches for which they resort to all forms of self medication with some using unauthorized drugs and alcohol.

In the past two weeks, I have received reports of at least two isolated cases of attack of the kind of asthma and epilepsy involving drivers of public service (commercial) vehicles and out of sheer luck they were both incident-free. It set me thinking to find out whether the current laws offer enough protection to that vulnerable passenger and pedestrian in that bus or on the walkway respectively at that material time.

Several investigations and surveys have been conducted in this area of health and driver licensing to reform driver licensing programmes.

Pennsylvania, some six decades ago, designed a proactive driver examination programme out of a series of engagement with stakeholders all with the view to prevent such automobile injuries and deaths traceable to the condition of health of the driver. In the end they developed the “Medical Guide for Physicians in Determining Fitness to Drive a Motor Vehicle"

In its first year of implementation, some 602 applicants were disqualified licensing for various conditions including; Loss of use of both hands; poor vision; Neurological, cardiac or circulatory disorders(including hypertension) and Neuropsychiatric disorders such as to prevent responsible control of motor vehicle;; conditions causing repeated lapses of consciousness; uncontrolled diabetes; uncontrolled epilepsy;

How does the law protect the vulnerable in Ghana, to the extent of the physical fitness of the driver generally?

Regulation 29 of the Road Traffic Regulations, 2012, L.I. 2180 provides for the requirement for eye test setting out in better details the minimum binocular vision required to hold a driving license of any kind in Ghana but can the same be said of the requirement as to physical fitness?

Section 57 of the Road Traffic Act 2004 Act 687 provides that, “An application for the grant of a licence shall include a declaration by the applicant, stating whether the applicant is suffering from any disease or disability, or any other disability likely to cause the driving of a motor vehicle by the applicant to be a source of danger to the public”

This position is respectfully regrettable and rearward to the extent that such a critical decision is allowed at the discretion of the applicant driver in the first instance.

The law however allows the Licensing Authority/DVLA upon inquiry I suppose based on information available to it in the least or suspicion at best to refuse or revoke the grant of the license notwithstanding the outcome of any competence test.

Section 59 of the Road Traffic Act, 2004, Act 683 disturbingly imposes a duty on the driver to do a disclosure of his circumstances as soon as he becomes aware that he is suffering from a disease that can affect his ability to drive or to disclose that a disease previously disclosed has become more acute since the license was granted.

It is my considered view that section 59 is worrying on two accounts. Firstly, I do not think that there are enough controls within the operational structures of commercial passenger transport operations that will occasion the kind of health reviews to make these conditions detectable and secondly, I do not think that, many a commercial driver will make a disclosure that will potentially vary his circumstances of life given the economic profile of commercial/public service drivers.

Regulation 28 of the Road Traffic Regulation 2012, L.I. 2180 that came into force in July of last year, however sets out the conditions for the grant of Driver’s Licence and provides among others that, “the Licensing Authority shall issue a driver’s licence to an applicant if the applicant has passed a medical examination prescribed by the Licensing Authority”

Without doubt, this regulation provides the basis to get serious with any programme to address these medical concerns that are beginning to emerge on our roads as road safety risk factors.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) is the agency of state mandated by law to certify drivers as safe prior to licensing and consequently have the responsibility to drive this process to give effect to the law.

In fairness to the DVLA, this Regulation is just about six (6 )months old but still enough time to get some engagement going in the nature of the Pennsylvanian example. The next tidume that guy gets an attack or failure, he may not be driving a taxi or 15-seater mini bus but a 38-seater Yutong bus or an overloaded school bus or may be driving into a crowd

We need to be proactive in managing the perceived and actual road traffic related risks by setting in motion the process of short listing these medical conditions that are a potential to impact on the physical fitness of drivers, accrediting medical institutions to carry out these examinations among others

Without sounding like a worrywart, I pray we do not wait any further until another “Melcom disaster” strikes on our road before we come pretending to be concerned as we have always done with road traffic crashes. The time to act is now.

I rest my case.

*the author is a Lawyer and Head of Communications at the National Road Safety Commission and can be reached on kkoduah2006@gmail.com or followed on KoduahAtuahene on Twitter.