The beginning of a new year is generally a time of reflection and resolution making. Usually, resolutions are about changing negative behaviors, adopting positive ones, achieving goals, etc. Reflecting upon the past year, I am most struck by the lack of compassion and consideration that was on display in Guyana in 2014. There are many examples- the police shooting of 15 yr old Alex Griffith, the senseless killing of two members of the transgender community, the multiple rapes of Guyanese women and girls, the wanton domestic and interpersonal violence, along with the wholesale looting of the national treasury and natural resources of the nation by the politrickians. Yes, there are many things that need changing in Guyana, on multiple levels. However, in my opinion, the problematic behavior at the root of most of these issues is the same one- a lack of empathy and that is something that must be tackled head on, by all Guyanese.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another; to put yourself in another person’s shoes, so to speak. Empathy is key to a healthy and well-functioning society. There is only this one planet, Earth, for all living creatures- human, animal, and plants- to share, and co-existence is necessary. Understanding and tolerance are essential- otherwise chaos and strife will rule. Sadly, it is clear in which direction the pendulum has swung in Guyana today.
Road safety- or the lack thereof- is one clear illustration of this lack of empathy. When one drives recklessly, at an excessive speed, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are endangering not just themselves but everyone in their path- passengers in their vehicle, pedestrians, bicyclists, and all others on the roadway. In 2014, almost as many Guyanese died from dangerous driving as from murders. Regionally, Guyana has the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the Caribbean. Note- I am deliberately not using the term ‘accident’ to describe these deaths. An accident is something that happens without warning, unexpectedly. Things that can be prevented are not accidents. The lives snuffed out due to reckless and impaired driving are loses that could have been prevented, not ‘accidental’ deaths.
The killing of otherwise healthy people by drunk and reckless drivers is a blow to society as well as their families. Statistics show that the majority of traffic fatalities are working-age individuals. These individuals are often key wage earners and contributors to their families, and their untimely deaths represent a substantial loss to the economy. However, death isn’t the only problem from dangerous driving. Even if persons aren’t killed, many often suffer major injuries, requiring substantial medical care which can be very costly. They sometimes lose limbs and are often left with chronic pain, impaired mobility, and a reduced ability to function independently. This maiming can have a huge negative impact on one’s quality of life and well-being- both physically and mentally. Crash victims can experience anxiety, sleeplessness, post-traumatic stress, difficulty maintaining relationships, etc.
Much needs to be done to reduce this scourge in our society today. The police and authorities need more breathalyzers and radar guns to apprehend speeders and drunk drivers. They also need to stop taking bribes to look the other way and let perpetrators go free. There needs to be better enforcement and consistent application of the law, with all law breakers being equally penalized, instead of different standards for those with more economic, social, or political power. Official flouting of the laws- by police as well as other ‘big ones’ in society- are a massive part of the problem for their behavior sends a message to others that these crimes are not serious and that they too can act with impunity. As citizens, we need to call for greater accountability and better service from all the public officials who, as servants of the people, are mandated to protect and serve all equally. Increased lighting and other physical safety measures must also be implemented, drivers better educated, and bars and other establishments selling alcohol engaged in the campaign.
However, cultivating greater empathy for one another needs to be at the forefront of all efforts. Every driver needs to think about other road users as people with lives and loved ones, dreams and goals just like them, not just someone “in their way” or to be outrun. They need to realize that driving recklessly or when impaired has seriously consequences. Stiff penalties can play a key role in deterrence. Young people need serious drivers’ education, and corrupt practices such as the purchasing of licenses, must be eliminated.
Peer pressure/support also has a crucial role to play in behavior change. Relationships with people who are supportive of behavior change, and who can suggest alternatives and reinforce positive change are essential. It is not necessary to consume alcohol or drugs in order to have fun. Friends and family members should pay attention to the behavior of their loved ones, and be alert to signs of alcohol/drug abuse or impairment. Just a little bit of planning ahead- deciding on a designated driver, or putting aside money for taxi fare- can mean the difference between life and death.
In terms of speeding, passengers in public transportation must not be afraid to raise their voices and concerns to the drivers of the vehicles. However, the data shows that most traffic fatalities are pedestrians. This is where empathy comes into play again. Going slower and sharing the road with others can only add years to one’s life; impaired and reckless driving is a sure recipe for disaster.
The carnage on the roads of Guyana CAN be contained. The change starts with each of us. This new year, let us resolve to cultivate more compassion and empathy for others, especially those sharing the roads with us. Let us resolve to be more responsible and safer drivers. This, along with greater accountability and proper, fair implementation of the laws is key to improving road safety in Guyana.