The reception to the recently passed road traffic regulations in Lagos State has been mixed. Most people are happy that the hours during which heavy duty vehicles other than petrol tankers and passenger-carrying lorries have been restricted, for instance. Not so popular are the fines and possible imprisonment for traffic violations. The word “draconian” has almost become cliché when the law is discussed.
It has also been suggested, with justification, that the greatest beneficiaries of these tighter, harsher controls will be LASTMA and the VIO. Seemingly devoid of the capacity to process rational thought, like most uniform-wearing government employees, it is more than likely that many will unjustly fall victim to their extortion and their typically extreme interpretations of the law of the road.
Now, even on the best days, driving in Lagos is hectic. Yes, congestion plays its part, Lagos being a megacity and all, but the real problem has to be the attitude of the folks behind the steering wheels. Everyone’s in too much of a hurry to stay in lane and a road with three marked lanes will typically have six or seven during rush hour; there is an absolute disregard for road markings (where they are even understood); people are honking wildly the very second the lights turn green; people block intersections even when their route isn’t free, as if it’s taboo for there to be any space between the front end of their car and the rear end of the car in front. Tanker drivers convert active road lanes to motor parks, without any compunction whatsoever. In fact, the only traffic regulation that people seem to (erroneously) hold on to is that in a collision, the car at the rear is always at fault. Clearly the roads needed to be sanitised. The question is whether or not this new law goes too far.
A more long-term question, in my view, is if it is possible to engineer social change through legislation without being “draconian”. When people of the older generation refer to present-day indiscipline, their marker for “when it was good” is invariably the Buhari-Idiagbon era, with its so-called War Against Indiscipline. My personal memories from that time are limited to the WAI jingles on the radio. However, many recall being frog-marched for not using pedestrian bridges or horse-whipped for not standing in line at bus-stops. The legend goes that the streets were extremely clean because people were too frightened to throw litter out of their car windows. Given the chaos that is driving in Lagos, is draconian not the way to go?
One of the only places where the average Lagosian will not attempt to “do you know who I am” a queue is at the American Embassy, for fear of a summary visa application denial. If I had my way, I would have the American Embassy run the toll gates at Lekki so that people don’t form multiple lines for each toll barrier opening. This attitude permeates the fabric of life in Lagos – no one obeys laws unless there is a clear and present danger of immediate punishment being exacted on them. And I would like to be able to say that it’s mostly commercial transport workers and hired drivers who are guilty of this but that would not be true. After all, if we move the discussion away from driving and look at general living in Lagos, we will find the “big man” who decides to build gates and turn his street into a close without consulting his neighbours or the town planning authority; and the other who thinks it’s okay to dump sand and gravel onto half of the road and into the gutters because he’s building his house.
If our driving attitudes in Lagos need to change is draconian legislation or, in the alternative, draconian enforcement not necessary?