Monday, April 8, 2013

April 8th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

I felt the impact, and at the same time heard the ‘baaaada….rummmmp’ as a vehicle ran into the back of the car I was driving. It was a low speed impact, and from the sound of it, did not appear to be a ‘big deal’. But it was… a much bigger deal and it affects you too!

As I got out of the driver’s seat and walked towards the vehicle that was still in kissing contact with mine, the middle-aged male driver sat perfectly still, holding the steering wheel, and looking straight ahead. He appeared to be trying to ignore me. I scanned the windshield and could not see any insurance or road worthiness certificate. The well-dressed woman in the passenger seat was being evasive. As I walked behind the vehicle, I saw that this 8 – 10 seat mini-bus was a GV plated vehicle. A passer-by told me ‘it is a Government Vehicle, you must leave them alone’. Not good advice for me, I am afraid, especially since I had already noted that at least 2 of the tyres were bald, non-roadworthy and perhaps been contributing factor to the impact.

I asked for identity of the driver. He refused. I asked if he had a driver’s licence, only to be told (incorrectly) that ‘this is a government vehicle, I do not need one’. He also informed me that ‘GV vehicles do not need insurance or road worthiness’. This activated my early warning system and raised my ‘Defence Readiness Condition’ or Defcon to yellow or ‘level 3’. It required a follow up, even it meant taking an extra couple of hours out of my day. This was not right.

I drove into the courtyard of the institution to whom the vehicle had been designated, and was approached by the general staff. The immediate antagonism from the civil servants of the organisation against anybody who had the audacity to tell their organisation that a vehicle was not ‘roadworthy’, led to a further interaction with a ‘person responsible for the oversight of maintenance’. Things got worse as it became clear that it was felt by some that government institutions were exempt from the same conditions as the general public.

When challenged, the ‘responsible person’ made noises that indicated clearly that he was aware of the ‘poor condition’. He made it even worse when he asked ‘how long have you been in Ghana?’. My response of ‘nearly two decades’ led to the statement that shook me and ignited the afterburners of my determination to bring about change. ‘Ahhh, you should know the system. The government does not give us enough money and so we have to drive vehicles that are not as they should be’, it was explained. I rose to DEFCON 2 and I am sure that my eyes started flashing red as my heart sounded the siren of disbelief!

Oh, boy, bad attitude. Wrong approach. Need to raise the bar. My need to do and say things that can prevent the potential accidents, physical injury or even death, that such an attitude is capable of causing, was fully engaged and locked on target.

The ‘head’ of the operation was then approached, and he admitted that ‘it should not be the case that non-roadworthy vehicles go on the public roads’. He actually gave me the impression that he really wanted to prevent accidents. I believe him. At that point, I was out of protocols, and not wanting to reach DEFCON 1, declared an internal reduction to DEFCON4, (condition green with above normal readiness) and decided to leave the site with the ‘top dogs’ at the side of the ‘offending vehicle’, whilst being insulted by the general staff for daring to comment on the condition of the units vehicle pool – even if it was to protect their very souls.

How many times have we raised the question of maintenance in this column? How many more times will we need to? MANY is the answer to both questions.

I see so many Government (central and local) Vehicles in poor shape. I was amazed to hear that such vehicles are ‘exempt from roadworthiness controls’. This really needs to change. When a vehicle is on the road, I do not care who owns it – police, military, corporate, personal, minister, GV or not, they are all able to kill innocent children, cause accidents and wreak havoc on our roads.

Surely, it would make SENSE to insist that the government vehicles meet the highest standards of control? If not, then we are left to believe that

a) the government personnel in those vehicles are not valuable enough to warrant a ‘roadworthy’ vehicle and
b) the people who share the roads with them are not considered valuable enough to warrant that the government ensure the safe condition of its own fleet.

We all know that these are not isolated cases – and we all know that there are many taxis and tro-tros that are in dilapidated conditions that ‘somehow’ appear to be considered roadworthy. The question is ‘who should set the example?’ I believe that it should be an immediate requirement that ALL vehicles undertake regular roadworthiness controls, from professional independent testing stations, and that we should apply the same standards for ALL.

I hope to never see bald tyres on any vehicle, let alone the tyres shredding and shedding as we see on a regular basis on our trunk roads. There are, of course, variations; the tests for motorcycles, cars, passenger vehicles, public transport, tractors, etc. have to be appropriate.

In aviation, the concept of allowing any aircraft into the air that does not meet the requirements for its type is a clear ‘death wish’ on the part of the operator. It is about time that we realised that not applying homogenous and universal standards for our road vehicles is also putting lives at risk. Sadly, it is often not the person who took the decision to allow a vehicle on the road that gets injured. Sadly, it is often not even the driver of the ‘below standard vehicle’ that gets injured. The rule of thumb appears to be that ‘the innocent get injured and those who allow it/perpetrate the conditions that lead to the poor maintenance related accident get away without a scratch’.

How can we bring about this change? It requires every single one of us changes our position – and expects more. It requires those in positions of authority to take on the responsibility for implied safety of those that they may never meet, and to understand that failure to ensure that appropriate and timely maintenance is carried out appropriately, and standards enforced will, inevitably, result in somebody losing their life.

Imagine if a child had been between my car and the GV vehicle that day… imagine what we can change and improve if we all work towards a ‘functional, appropriate, effective and reliable maintenance aware society’.

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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