Reflections of a road user

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By Desmond Ovbaiegle
Languishing in the perennial traffic snarl-ups in Lagos provides ample opportunity for all manner of reflection. And as I surveyed the chaos of motorists jockeying belligerently for position around me, I recalled a mundane but enlightening incident I encountered not very long ago overseas.

I was in the front passenger seat of a vehicle placed midway in a queue of other left-bound cars waiting patiently for a traffic light to turn from red to green, as the traffic to our right flowed freely straight ahead. But just as the amber light materialized to signal impending motion, a usurper who had deliberately coasted past the queue in the free-flowing lane suddenly darted in (Naija style) with his indicator flashing expectantly.

 Motorists in  a traffic gridlock  on Abuja–Keffi Road,  as a result of soldiers' check for bombs.

Motorists in a traffic gridlock

As a veteran spectator/participant of similar situations back home, I watched with considerable interest to see the reaction of fellow motorists abroad to this unusually (for them) brazen show of blatant opportunism. And it was fascinating to see the identical, collective response. Every single one of those cars (including my driver) ignored the silent appeal of his flashing indicator and forged ahead unwaveringly. I looked back to ascertain his fate. By the time he finally found a free spot to enter, the light had changed back to red.

I marvelled that there was no reward whatsoever for his impunity. His fellow citizens—male and female, young and old (and without the intervention of a single traffic official)—saw to that. Resolutely.

Contrast this with the traffic jam playing out in front of me in Lagos. Firstly, there wasn’t one usurper, but several. And democratic in their constitution, from the usual danfo drivers to gleaming Land Cruisers. Every one of them contemptuous of the principle of ‘first come, first served’; gliding past obvious queues of fellow road users to attempt a more vantage entry point apparently reserved for the bold and audacious. Engaging their identified victim with direct intimidation, winsome pleading, sycophantic hailing — or any combination of the three, depending on the progress achieved.

And invariably, the response was the same. If the first or second motorist in the queue stood their ground (which happened only occasionally), the third would surely give in, as if in sympathy for the ‘punishment’ that he/she felt the intruder had already received.

A decent harvest indeed for their efforts, compared with the inconvenience of languishing as far back in the queue as their late arrival actually merited.

So why the divergent mindsets from motorists at home and overseas in the same situation? Which is right and which is wrong? Why do we appear to compromise where they remain unyielding? Is it because we as a people are naturally warm-hearted and kind where they are cruel, cold and unforgiving?

I think not. You only have to witness the response in the developed world to emergencies and crises (whether at home or abroad) to appreciate their regard for human life.

But somehow, without any national sensitization campaign, they seemed to instinctively realize and accept the fact that the responsibility for law enforcement in their land is individual, as well as governmental. No waiting for ‘oga at the top’ to wield the big stick before enjoying peace and safety. For them, looking the other way as someone flagrantly breaks the law before their very eyes is tantamount to wilfully contributing to the destruction of their much-cherished and well-functioning system.

Clearly, in our part of the world, such a philosophy appears to be lightly esteemed, judging by our consistency in accommodating similar acts of lawlessness. And there are various reasons why we do so, among which three seem to be prominent:

One of them, as mentioned earlier, is a misguided sense of sympathy; an apparent effort to extend magnanimity to an offender; an advocacy of the motto that ‘to err is human, but to forgive is divine’.

A noble ideal, to be sure. But the nobler one is to improving the commuting experience of road users by deterring traffic offenders from committing the same offence again and again. Needless to say, the repeated exercise of magnanimity for flagrant sins offers no incentive for behaviour modification. So we all continue to stew in the impunity created by our own negligence.

The second reason is simply a case of self-interest. Standing your ground against lawlessness is not without risk. Your car could quite easily be scratched or worse in the process, particularly by those usurpers whose preferred strategy of engagement is intimidation. But positive change always comes at a price; the question is – are we willing to pay it if need be? The unfortunate answer all-too-often is no. Many of us desire change for the better, but at no cost whatsoever to ourselves. And since life doesn’t work that way, nothing changes. So we resign ourselves to what we erroneously conclude is inevitable, whereas a little effort, resolve and sacrifice on our parts could move the mountains that stand in our path. And strangely enough, we will still end up paying a price for it, in one way or another.

The third is perversely a question of conscience. Many of us relent to these offenders in the full knowledge that we practice (or may have cause to practice in the future) the very same things ourselves (which is why danfo drivers are always quick to give way to each other in such situations). So out of a subconscious fear of a future operation of the law of retribution, we compromise.

And as all these various permutations and combinations of counterproductive decision-making play out, our traffic management officials look on. In fairness, they often do what they can but are simply overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the lawlessness, whether by commission or omission.

As they should be. Because the solution anywhere in the world was never designed to be effected by a handful of uniforms (and judging by their resigned expressions, they know it). Or in attaining the status of enjoying siren-blaring escorts.

No, the responsibility for enforcing the order that we crave but cannot find, lies not with that ‘oga at the top’ wearing red beret, but with each of us. It requires bravery and stubborn persistence. And the sooner we realize and embrace this reality, the sooner we will all be able to get to our respective destinations with our vehicles and peace of mind intact.

Just like our fellow motorists abroad.

 

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