Monday, October 8, 2012

October 8th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

I must admit I was rather surprised, more ‘shocked’ and partly shaken by the motorcycle rider weaving all over the road, with both hands off of the handlebars, sirens wailing and trying to move all vehicles to the side of the road. I pulled over, only to be sped past at insane speeds by several vehicles that would have been unable to stop should a child run out. Of course, it was one of the new style ‘motorcade expresses’ that West Africa seems to have built up over recent years. The driving style was far from safe, and although the passengers in the vehicles would have survived a crash, the potential risk to those in the areas where they were ‘speeding in excess’ was high, such that third parties would have stood little or no chance of survival.

It was not as if it was an ‘emergency’, it was simply the expediency of ‘moving quickly’ – the consideration for those who may suffer, should anything go wrong, missing.

Pilots learn early on, that limits are put in place for a reason. If the manufacturer sets a limit, there is a reason, and if you exceed it you will suffer – or others will at some point. Likewise, on our roads there are set limits for travelling. Those who break those limits know the risks that they are taking, and generally are not the ones who suffer when it goes wrong.

Some years ago I was pulled over by the police on the M4 motorway in the UK. I was speeding. It was my first motoring offence, and my last. A group of us were driving at speeds in excess of the limits, on a 4-lane each-way section of top quality road with no pedestrians or risks anywhere near to those we have here. I was the last vehicle in the line, and as such was the one pulled over by the police.

I sat in my car and shook, having never had any such thing happen before. The police man immediately asked if I was OK, since I must have looked terrified! He told me to calm down, explained the offence, gave me a ticket and told me that I would have to appear in court. He then also told me that a certain member of the British Royal Family had been caught on the same stretch of the road a few weeks earlier. In fact, I then remembered, they were given a heavy fine and had their licence suspended for a few weeks; as I subsequently experienced.

All the British Royals are expected to sit and pass their driving tests, and are fully subject to the rules of the road, the same as every other citizen. The same goes for the MP’s and other dignitaries. Perhaps the lower rate of accidents in the UK and other developed nations has some connection to ‘applying the rules uniformly and objectively’.

I remember being knocked off my motorcycle in West Africa some years ago. The taxi that knocked me over had no lights, no appreciable brakes, and the driver had no licence. However, it was quickly decided that ‘since he was ‘related’ to the police officer arriving on the scene’, that it was nobody’s fault. I was then asked to ‘pay for the paint to repaint the police station’! I am sure you understand why I said ‘NO!’, and suggested that ‘Since Nobody is to blame, ask Nobody for the paint’.

I am glad to say that the police in West Africa are improving dramatically compared to many incidents in the past, but we are far from ‘where we should be’. Very far.

I have pointed out in this column that aviators are generally aware of the rules and the reasons for them. We often say that ‘every regulation has a tombstone to back it up’ - that meaning that ‘somebody died because they did not stick to the regulation’. Let me point out the obvious: the same can be said for the rules of the road.

That single white line down the middle of the road, that indicates you should not overtake, is only painted where it is dangerous to overtake. It does not mean ‘overtake at your own risk’, no, it means ‘DO NOT OVERTAKE’. Yet, we see many vehicles breaching the basics of road etiquette, and its associated safety, every day.

Personally, I really do not enjoy driving. I would rather not-drive if I could help it. The lack of order, correct distances between vehicles, observance of the rules, abuse of the rules by those who believe that they are outside of the rules, etc. – it not only angers me, but it is putting me and others in physical danger – against the law of the land.

At least when I fly, I tend to find myself amongst more ‘polite rule following folks’. I feel safer and more supported. I know what to expect, what is expected of me and what I should expect of others.

I can hear some of you saying the one phrase that will tip me over the edge, and into an insulting rage – if you say ‘oh, but this is Africa’ (or ‘TIA’ for short), well, get set for my response.

Yes, this is Africa – and therefore we should be better than those in Europe and the developed West in general. We need to be safer. Our emergency services are far less likely to save our lives, in the event of an accident – due to lack of facilities and lack of timely response, often due to access issues. Because we are in Africa we are more likely to have ‘less well maintained roads’, which increases the risks as we push the limits. The maintenance on our vehicles is often lower than that in the more developed nations – and so, we should be more careful in all that we do.

Telling me ‘TIA’ is like telling me that ‘because it is more dangerous on the roads, we will drive even more dangerously? Are you backtracking yet?

When I ask my team ‘Who is responsible for safety?’ they all point at their chests and respond ‘Me, I am responsible for safety.’ Simple. Accept it and work towards making it a reality, or ignore it… and plan on attending more hospitals and funerals – perhaps your own.

Now, how do we get the official to set the best example? Hmmmm. Perhaps we have bigger challenge there, but all the same, we can change the odds by changing how we do things and hoping that, bit-by-bit, others will follow, and through better safety on our roads, our children, our brothers, sisters and respected elders, will all live a little bit safer and longer… but it begins with ME… and YOU.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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