With the quest for safety of lives and property paramount on the agenda of the Federal Road Safety Corps this ‘Ember Months’, Safety Record Newspaper reached out to the Commission’s Lagos State Sector Commander, Mr. Hyginus Omeje, who tirelessly is pursuing to ensure that accidents on the highway are reduced to the barest minimum. In this interview with Paul Mbagwu and John Ogunsemore, Omeje speaks on the import of installation of the Speed Limiting Device on vehicles, mass mobilisation of corps officials on the highway to save lives this ‘ember months’ and other issues.
One of the core strategic goals of the FRSC for 2016 is to reduce road traffic crashes (RTCs) by 15 percent and fatalities by 25 percent, and we are already in November. How do you think the Corps has done in this regard especially in Lagos?
Fair enough, we are not yet there but we are not losing hope. Why it is not good to aggregate these things midway like this is because I can finish this interview and in the next minute there can be a crash that will erase every success that we may think we have achieved because emphasis here is on fatality. For example, you could just have a single multiple crash involving two 18-seater buses which went into flames. And there could be 14 to 14 people inside the two buses – that’s 28 and everyone perished. It has rubbished every gain you think you may have made. So we don’t always say, ‘hurray’ until we get to the end of the year. Then we will be able to now aggregate properly if we have been able to meet our target or not. If we did not meet our target, we’ll try to find out the factors responsible for not meeting our target. For example, the Lagos-Ibadan, which is a major route, we have been complaining about the state of the road and the Federal Government awarded a contract. Now, it was divided into two sections: RCC – they are doing from Ibadan to Sagamu interchange; Julius Berger are doing from Shagamu interchange to Lagos. The portion that RCC did going to Ibadan which is very good – that small portion between Ogunmakin axis, you will notice that that is where we are even getting increasing cases of fatality each time it occurs. Julius Berger is also now doing some segments very well. So, until we get to the end of the year before we can justify the extent to which we have been able to achieve this 15 percent and 25 percent expected.
From October 1st the FRSC began enforcing the use of speed limiter devices. How efficient has the enforcement being so far?
It has been very successful. I say that because a journey of 1000 miles starts with a step. We have been on the appraisal of the speed limit metre, to be or not to be. We have been trying to find out the inherent advantages / disadvantages. We went to the National assembly; we came out of National Assembly with a clean bill and now we said okay, ‘let us start with advisory notes’.
So what we started in October is what we call advisory enforcement. What does advisory enforcement entail? It entails stopping this commercial operators randomly, checking, among other checklists in the free safety checkbook that we used checking to see if the man has complied. If he has complied, you check it; if he has not complied, you also check it, “not complied”. At the end of the day, you tear it and give him so that the driver can take it to the owner who will now see, ‘Oh, I have already been notified that there is need for me to install.’
We have not started the full enforcement that will carry penalty. That will start January 1. What we are doing now is just advisory enforcement. From the statistics I have, I think as at the last time I checked it, we have been able to check over 6000 vehicles in Lagos out of which just merely 300 plus has complied which if you look at it, it’s just like a drop in the ocean but do you know why I am optimistic that we will get there – just start something. Start building on what you have started instead of not starting and procrastinating. You know we deferred it for so long. Now that we have started it, I think the percentage may be low but I’m sure we will get there.
As regards ember months and coupled with the fact that you said 300 has complied out of 6000, do you think the speed limiter would actually reduce RCTs by 50 percent as the FRSC projects?
What we said is that from our analyses, we discovered that about 50.8 percent of fatal crashes recorded are speed related. So it is hoped that if we can successfully implement the installation of the speed limiting devices, what we would have succeeded in doing is killing this speed before it kills us and inversely proportional, if you now take it the other way round, if we can successfully get it 100 percent, then it is also likely that we are also going to get a cut in the fatality by the same 50 something percent.
But as it is now, it is still too early to start juxtaposing whether we think we will because we have not fully started the enforcement, we are still on advisory. That was why I took my time to explain to you what I mean by advisory enforcement, it’s not as if we have started arresting anybody for not putting it or prosecuting anybody in the court for not putting it or giving him ticket. No. We only say, ‘why have you not installed?’ Most of them will tell you that it is economic reasons – the money. Some companies have even written us formally asking for extension, that ‘it was not accommodated in the year’s budget.’ And because laws are bound to have a human face, we are entertaining all those things and giving a time limit of October 1 to December 31.
Let’s keep on advising; let’s keep on sensitizing so that by the time we cross over to January and raise the full sledgehammer, people will also understand with us that they were warned. Everyone that we are issuing advisory tickets to do not know that it is been imputed into our database, so by the time we get to the other side, they will start saying ‘but you didn’t warn me’. All I just need to do is to take our e-tablet and type in your number, ‘your number is here, Sir. You have earlier been advised to install in Port Harcourt or in Kano or in Lagos so we have your database.’ So it is still too early for us to start dictating if it can be achieved.
It has worked in other countries. We have seen the success rate in other countries. If we get it 100 percent at the emphasis, we will get it among the commercial operators. Remember that we are just on the first phase. Just commercial fleet operators, not all vehicles yet; because where the weighty matters are domiciled are in the commercial fleet operators. Each time there is a crash when you have the highest number of casualties it’s with the commercial fleet operators, not with the private operators. If everybody in that private vehicle perishes, it cannot be compared to that of an 18-seater bus or 62-passenger luxurious bus.
If you are travelling with your family, you don’t need me to tell you not to speed, the mere sight of your wife and your children – that is the speed limiter. That is why we are not bothered about private vehicles. I’m yet to see somebody that will carry his private vehicle and say that he wants to go at a suicidal speed but the commercial fleet operators; the driver is only looking at the money he will make if he can go to Onitsha and come back again today. And that is why we are saying, let us just start here.
Still on the commercial fleet operators, how then do we put a check on them this ember period especially when many people will be going to their village to enjoy the Christmas holiday?
There are several methodologies that the Corps has been using and it has been working and we will continue to intensify and leverage on that because we have seen that the methodologies have worked over the years. We will just bring in new things to it, and modify one or two things.
For example, towards the end of the year like this we have always increased our awareness campaign. We do park rallies, road shows, domesticated public enlightenment. What do I mean by domesticated public enlightenment? – Taking the road safety message to churches, mosques, and organizations to sensitize people the more.
The problem with our roads is attitudinal. It is the attitude of the people and if we can change the attitude of the people, the road will be safe for all of us. It is about the road users not as much as about the state of the road that people cry over. I just gave you an analogy, the section of the road that RCC did very well is where we are having the highest number of fatalities as against where the road is even bad. So it is about the attitude of the people using the road.
That is why we will not relent in our public enlightenment campaigns. The media is also another strategy that we have used over the period; partnering with the media. What I am telling you now, by the time you publish it do you know how many people will read it? When I appear on any TV station; when I am on a radio station I will reach wider audience. So we are also using the media to ensure that we sensitize them (the public). We come up with our jingles- ‘speed thrills but it kills’, ‘drive jeje’. All these jingles will pass through the media.
Then these days we don’t even just rely on going to motor parks, our roadshows have proved to be very effective because if I go to Motor Park, I will not see you but when I am doing a roadshow, I will see you to give you a flier. So we distribute leaflets, fliers, stickers passing the message on the need for us to be safety conscious on our roads.
And of course our enforcement within this period, you will see visibly our presence on the road more than before. We are combining all the company commands, our unit commands within the city centre. We are pulling all the resources out both personnel and vehicular. We are moving them to the express.
Lagos Ibadan is very critical like I told you. If for every 50 metres you go, you see the FRSC patrol team. If for every electric pole you see patrol team, when will you have the time to over-speed? We are doing traffic calming.
There are many overloaded vehicles plying the highways and some of them were apprehended. We have even gone to the extent of doing night operations in partnership with our sister agencies (RRS) between the hours of 7 to 10 because we discover that this is where the overloaded vehicles go on the road and not during the day. They know that our regular operations stop by 6 so they start moving from 7. Effectively, we started learning how to fly without perching. So we are now even doing night operations just to make sure that overloading, which is also another risk factor on our road, can be tamed.
What about the articulated vehicles and trucks that are always packed on the highway? What measures are being put in place to check their activities?
I agree with you. Law is not a respecter of persons. As we are with the Rapid Response Squad like that in the night, if we also see such articulated vehicles, we will apprehend them. There are many of them who do not have rear lights, releasing smoke excessively that you cannot even overtake if you want to because you cannot really see because of the smoke. That is why we bring in those kinds of trucks. So our operations is not just centred on picking the light vehicles, heavy duty trucks are also part of it but remember, we cannot arrest everybody at the same time. It’s a gradual thing. You randomly pick the ones you can pick. 99 percent of traffic offenders violators in a day, you can’t arrest them; you only randomly pick those ones you can pick. Tomorrow you do the same thing again. If it is not your turn today, tomorrow it could be another person’s turn. These are the measures we are taken. All these special operations we are doing are targeted at forestalling crashes within this period.
Last year, Guinness Plc gave us digital breathalyzers that you can use to find out whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol, store it in the memory of that breathalyzer; print it out later if you so wish, if you want to prosecute the person. These are all devices that we apply.
When we came up with the issue of speed limiting device, people did not understand. Technology is solving a lot of problems, so you also need to deploy a lot of technology to manage traffic and safety issues in Nigeria and that is why we are going the speed digital way. We are also using raider gun that can also help you to know that the vehicle is over speeding. These are technological deployments that the Corps is employing especially within this period to ensure that we curb the excesses of these motorists and also reduce crashes and casualties on our roads.
We have discovered that many Nigerian drivers are reckless because of bad attitude toward road usage and we have also noticed that FRSC and other emergency organizations encourage road users to reach your emergency line 122 to report crashes when seen. What is the frequency at which you have been getting these calls and what is the outcome?
It‘s been very helpful. Most of the crashes that occur in the night and even during the day, we do get it from our call centre. Incidentally, these calls hit our national call centre and then if it concerns us, we will be called and informed. You discover that at the head office they will be able to tell you what the frequency is in terms of reducing it to statistics or figures. But for me, it comes occasionally as cases occur within Lagos routes. But what I want to appreciate is that the public know that the number is working. The public are using those numbers and we have been getting the reports.
Do you receive preventive calls?
We do receive such calls. When such calls come we ask you the number of the vehicle and where it is heading to. We can now put a response team on alert depending on where he is going. Even if he has left Lagos shores, I can now call Mowe or Shagamu or Ijebu-Ode (all in Ogun state) or any other one for them to be on alert. I remember a tanker that was loaded and was leaving Lagos and the tyres were just shaking and somebody called. The person said the tanker is by Ojota and you know he is going to make a ring up the bridge to come and face toll-gate. We came to toll-gate, blocked the road and we took the tanker from there. So we do receive preventive calls as well as emergency calls.
Concerning commercial fleet operators, how do you ensure that this people keep poorly maintained vehicles off the road this season?
There is a scheme we run – the Road Transport Safety Standardisation Scheme (RTSSS) of the Corps. In Lagos state I did set up a special enforcement scheme. They go with this breathalyzers and they also look out for poorly-maintained vehicles and vehicles that do not meet standards. That scheme has three integral parts: the operators’ safety standards that must be maintained, the driver’s safety standard that must be maintained, and the vehicle’s safety standard that must be maintained.
So if a vehicle is poorly-maintained and our men meet such on the road, especially these anti triple air scheme enforcement unit, the only thing is to impound the vehicle. The vehicle must not go anywhere. Even though there are passengers in the vehicle, they have to get another vehicle, especially if we check all the tyres and we discover that the tyres are expired and they are on the road. No, we don’t allow it.
How would you rate the inter-state commercial bus transporters in Nigeria especially in Lagos presently and why?
Taking a look at where we are coming from, when that industry was highly unregulated and what the FRSC was able to do through the road transport safety standardization scheme that I just talked about now, I think we are moving forward. As much as I will also tell you that we are not yet there but we are making progress. Rome was not built in a day.
We have brought some sanity into them. We have brought some standardisation. Today you can walk to some of the fleet commercial operators and have a place to sit while you wait for the bus to come. In some of those waiting bases you can see television; you can have a convenience where you can urinate. Remember also, those inter-state buses were taking four passengers per seat before, the interstate buses only carry three passengers on a seat (now). So gone are the days when people squeeze you in the bus. Any bus you see them carrying four per seat, then that will be one out of ten vehicles that load from the park.
In recent times, we noticed that they will even load until the doorway is full of loads. If commuters have to urinate on the road, you will need to offload first. We are sending our RTSSS team to those parks to warn them and when the enforcement units meet them on the road, they impound such vehicles because it causes overloading and it’s hazardous. Don’t think you are going to erase all these things in one day? Even God did not do so. When He was taken the children of Israel to the promise land, He told them that He would not wipe out the people in one day least wild animals devour them in the land. God said He would gradually root out the nations. So gradually FRSC is rooting out all these anomalies and excesses of the commercial fleet operators and we are having standards and orderliness come into play.
Gone are the days when you will see transporters picking passengers anyhow on the road. The passengers’ manifest is there; before there was no passengers’ manifest. Today we can tell you how many people that travelled out of Lagos in a week. If anything happens and the vehicle goes up in flame, we can go back to the passengers’ manifest and be able to pull out the record and know who travelled.
Sir, we have discovered that when travelling at night visibility is a bigger problem than over-speeding and use of retro-reflective tape is one option that has been proven in the outside world to curb this issue of poor visibility. Why is it that there has been a reduction in the use of this retro-reflective tape?
I’m happy at least you know that we did implement that policy. Good. Well, we are still on it. It’s not as if we have jettisoned it. It’s in the National Road Traffic Regulation with specifications on how those things will be placed.
I think that’s why this kind of interview is important. The media also have a role to play here in educating our people on why they should put those retro-reflective tapes. It’s just about lack of awareness; ignorance.
That’s why you tell somebody to buy a retro-reflective tape that will not cost anything and he will be foot dragging. But like I told you, we do pick them up. Part of those people that were arrested in the night are those who do not have rear lights. If I am following you at night I should be able to know that a vehicle is in front of me; people who don’t have retro-reflective tapes too. Our men do pick them up.
Finally, this is the ember-month period when vehicular movements are high and you must have experienced so many things. What do you envisage will be a challenge to you operating this season?
Our greatest challenge within this period especially as it affects the major arterial route of the nation which is the Lagos-Ibadan is this rehabilitation work that is going on. It’s going to be a very big challenge. If they do not finish it before December, we will have a lot of works on our hands in terms of managing traffic in other routes and that is why we are partnering and synergizing with the construction companies so that even if they will not finish, we can get palliatives all through the roads so that there will be smooth flow of traffic within this period and the rest, we have already mapped out strategy on how we will go about it.
We are going to do a 24-hour shift as we enter December with some of our men being camped in our camps along the corridor. We will create a camp in Ojota, Mowe, Shagamu – we have offices in these places; where our men will be sleeping together on a 24-hour basis so that in case of any emergency we will activate a response squad immediately. You know we don’t work at night ordinarily.
We are also going to deploy our men from the other unit within Lagos and push them to the express so that we can have visible presence and we are going to deploy all our resources in terms of just technological devices to ensure that before you kill anybody we will pick you out.
Finally, what is your advice to commuters and motorists who are likely to travel this season?
My parting shot and my advice to the motoring public is this- we all know that within this period, there is high volume of traffic on the road. That will cause confusion on the part of everybody. We need to be more safety conscious as we travel within this period. If you are sure of your vehicle, you are not sure if the other driver has tyres as good as yours, so we need to exercise care. We need to be very patient.
If you saw what happened on Lagos-Ibadan Expressway recently – sheer impatience. The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway – outward and even inward Lagos, the long bridge has been narrowed to two lanes as they are re-surfacing one side; they narrow it to two lanes. That means only two vehicles can go in at a time. Why creating five lanes? We must exercise patience on the road. Don’t overload your vehicle. Don’t drive against the flow of traffic. Don’t drink and drive; and if you must drink, please don’t drive. Let us embrace this speed limiting device that we are talking about so that we can kill over speeding before over speeding kills us. If you are a passenger, please don’t just seat inside the vehicle and snore. Shine your eye. Watch your driver. That’s what we call passengers’ watch. Passengers should learn to watch their driver and in case the man is driving you to mortuary, raise your voice; don’t just sit there and be watching. Or put a call through to FRSC. On our toll-free line 122, give us the number of the vehicle. Tell us where you people are going so that our men on the road can intercept the vehicle before it kills you people. Remember to fasten your seatbelt because in the case of the unexpected your safety might just depend on that seatbelt.