By Prince Okafor
Fuel laden tankers falling on the roads, exploding and killing people on regular basis? President of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, Comrade Williams Akporeha, in this interview, urges the Federal Government to make roads motor-able, provide security on the highways and support the efforts of the union in training Petroleum Tanker Drivers, PTDs.
Can we know what NUPENG is doing on the increasing rate of accidents involving petrol tankers?
First, I disagree that there is an increasing rate of accidents involving fuel tankers. It is exaggerated and overblown. What we have are recent cases of petroleum products laden tankers falling as a result of many potholes on the highways in parts of South-East and South-West and unscrupulous people rushing there to scoop fuel resulting in inferno which consumes lives and property.
These incidences have received huge commentaries and media coverage, but we plead that our reportage should try and uncover the truths. It is rather unfortunate that our society has degenerated to the level of lacking empathy and consideration for the pains of others as long as we are making money out of the misfortune. Beyond poverty, there is an increasing level of greed, loss of moral values and reduction in human feelings in the country.
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Notwithstanding the above, NUPENG, as a responsible union, has not folded its hands on these incidences, as we have continued to mount pressure on the government to fix our roads most of which are in deplorable state. Potholes as huge as gullies are all over the country and falling off of articulated trucks is not peculiar to petroleum tankers. It happens to so many trucks and vehicles including those carrying containers. And because of the inflammable nature of the products we carry and the behaviours of people generally, petroleum tanker accidents have many implications.
We have had series of meetings, held press conferences, written to government on bad roads which are the major cause of accidents involving tankers. The union, through its Petroleum Tanker Drivers branches, PTD, annually commits a lot of resources into the training and re-retraining of tanker drivers on safety, safe driving, vehicle maintenance and good conduct on the highways.
Currently, in view of the ‘EMBER’ months, another round of training is going on for petroleum tanker drivers. The training is usually bi-annual and it is done with presentations from the Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC, fire-fighting agencies, Civil Defence Corps, Nigeria Police, Lagos State Transport Management Agency, LASTMA, and traffic control agencies in every state where the training is holding.
Furthermore, the union in collaboration with FRSC, is enforcing the installation of speed limiter in every of the petroleum tanker that loads from any of the depots.
The union also has its Vehicle Inspection Officers, VIOs, checking each of the trucks that come for loading. The VIOs are experienced retired truck drivers. These and many others are what we are putting into the system.
Apart from the bad state of the roads, what other factors are responsible for tanker accidents?
There are other factors apart from the poor state of our roads. They include mechanical and human factors. Our spare parts markets are literally flooded with fake and substandard spare parts. Oftentimes, failed mechanical parts are the major contributory factors.
Another factor is the inability of owners of these articulated trucks to give adequate attention to their trucks. Another factor is the illegal activities of some law enforcement agencies who mount illegal roadblocks on major highways across the country.
Some tanker drivers have been accused of recklessness on the roads. Do you agree with this and what is NUPENG doing in this regard?
Drivers under the aegis of PTD, NUPENG cannot be termed as reckless because they undergo training and re-training yearly. However, you cannot rule out the possibility that out of every ten apples, one or two may be rotten. But to make a generalised statement that tanker drivers are reckless is wrong. As I earlier said, huge resources are committed annually into this exercise. We warn them against the abuse of substances, alcoholism and we organise medical checks for them regularly. We have experts who check their eyes, for clear vision, sugar levels, and blood pressure. That is why accidents have reduced. The FRSC will attest to this. There are a few cases of some recalcitrant and erring drivers and the union has a disciplinary mechanism in place to deal with such situations as they arise.
Can we know the number of tankers operating nationwide and their sectoral distribution?
We do not have the actual figure. The statistics vary always, as more and more tankers enter the petroleum distribution chain daily with pump stations springing up in all nooks and crannies of the country. Large numbers of tankers enter Lagos daily to load petroleum products from the depots scattered in Apapa, Ijegun and Satellite axis of the state.
Their sectorial distribution is also the same and this is due to the non-functional state of the nation’s refineries. What happens now is that these trucks move in thousands daily to depots outside Lagos in Port Harcourt, Oghara, Koko, Calabar, and Warri, among others, to load petroleum products, especially to the northern part of the country. This is the reason tankers are always on the roads.
Do you have an idea of the number of fatalities NUPENG has recorded since the beginning of this year?
I can categorically tell you that the rate of petroleum tanker accidents has reduced drastically compared to what used to obtain five years ago. FRSC can attest to this fact. It is rather unfortunate that we have some of the incidences just recorded now, especially in the Onitsha axis. It is pathetic. However, the FRSC will be in a better position to provide you with this record.
Some of the tankers operating are believed not to be roadworthy. How does NUPENG ensure that the tanker owners adhere to safety standards?
The union, through the PTD Branch where tankers drivers belong does not compromise on safety. The PTD Branch ensures that vehicles plying the roads are roadworthy and have speed limiters installed. The PTD works in collaboration with the National Association of Road Transport Owners, NARTO, and the employer association to ensure that trucks are in good condition before embarking on journeys. It is part of the training we give drivers. We make sure the truck owners don’t put the lives of our members at risk.
As I said earlier, the union also has its VIOs checking each of the trucks that come for loading.
Attempts by government to restrict the movement of tankers to specific periods of the day in the past were rejected by NUPENG and many believe that only the restriction can reduce the rate of tanker accidents. How do you react to that?
The fact is that petroleum products are in the essential category of items that should be distributed mainly during the day to forestall shortages, theft and availability.
If you restrict the movement to specific periods, we will begin to witness shortages, queues in filling stations because of shortfalls, which could heat up the polity and supply chain. However, due to the high level of insecurity on the highways and the preponderance of accidents happening in the night due to several factors including tiredness and sleep, we have instructed petroleum tanker drivers not to travel at night.
There is a ban on night driving for petroleum tanker drivers and that is why restricting them to specific periods will hamper the smooth delivery of petroleum products.
As stated earlier, there are several factors responsible for road accidents. The issue of restriction or no restriction is one aspect but we must restore standard in everything we do. Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, must ensure the elimination or reduction of fake spare parts in the market. Government must provide good roads and security on the highways to support the efforts of the union.