Losing it in traffic nightmare

Michael Edgington had just moved to the Cayman Islands two months ahead of Christmas and was out with some work buddies looking for a good time the night of 17 December.

Less than a month later, a memorial service was being held for the 26-year-old accountant, who was struck by a van while walking across West Bay Road in the early hours of 18 December. Police arrested the van’s driver on suspicion of dangerous and drunken driving, although no charges had been filed at press time.

The incident involving Edgington was a tragedy that marred the holiday season for many. But taking a look at local police statistics over the holidays, one might take the view that it’s fortunate more people didn’t lose their lives over the holiday period.

The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service reported 298 vehicle collisions on roads between 22 November and 3 January during a high-profile holiday traffic enforcement campaign.

The number has caused the RCIPS some consternation, given that it represents roughly double the number of car accidents that occur on a weekly basis in Cayman.

“For a country the size of the Cayman Islands, 298 collisions in six weeks is a terrible figure and clearly demonstrates the lack of care and attention paid by many people on our roads,” Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Chief Inspector Angelique Howell says.

According to the latest traffic figures available, January through September 2010, the Cayman Islands averaged about 25 road accidents per week.

During the six weeks of the holiday traffic enforcement effort, Cayman averaged 50 collisions per week.

Prior to the holiday season, the number of accidents was actually trending down a bit, police records show.

It was the same with drink driving arrests which had dropped slightly earlier in 2010 but increased during the holidays.

A total of 37 people were arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving over the six week holiday period, a number police said represented an increase over the same six-week period in 2009.

DUI arrests averaged just more than six per week between 22 November and 3 January. That’s more than the 4.6 DUI arrests RCIPS recorded per week between January and September 2010.

“It’s clear that much more needs to be done by all agencies involved in road safety to address the issue,” Chief Inspector Howell said, adding that work would begin early in 2011 on a national road safety strategy.

Disturbing trend

A poignant example of poor driving standards can be seen via a review of fatal accidents that occurred here in 2010.

Royal Cayman Islands Police are investigating allegations of criminality in six of those seven vehicle accidents.

In three of the fatal accident cases, criminal charges have been brought against the drivers.

In three other incidents, police are investigating allegations of either hit-and-runs or – in the most recent deadly accident – accusations of dangerous driving and DUI.

Only one deadly accident from 2010, which involved a single motorcycle that lost control, was not being investigated for potential criminality. That crash killed 26-year-old George Powell.

In other fatal crashes that have occurred this year, charges have been filed in connection with the deaths of Matthew Bodden, 23, and Winston Welsh. Welsh was struck as he walked across the road near the Mango Tree restaurant in November.

Bodden was involved in a high-speed crash in January along Shamrock Road in what police believed to be a racing-related accident.

The driver of the other car involved was charged with causing death by dangerous driving. FederAnn Faustino, 24, was killed in an early morning wreck along the Esterley Tibbetts Highway.

The driver of the other vehicle involved in that crash was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

In the deaths of Jane Oneill of Massachusetts, USA and Mike Allan Jervis, 59, of Cayman police were still investigating. Jervis was believed to have been the victim of a hit-and-run driver as he rode his bicycle along Eastern Avenue in June.

Oneill died several months after she was struck by two cars as she attempted to cross West Bay Road in April. One individual was arrested, but no charges have ever been filed. Police have never reported an arrest in Mr. Jervis’ death.

The final road fatality of the year involved Edgington, 26, and no charges have been filed in that case.

Better roads, safer driving

Many road safety advocates in the Cayman Islands believe there’s a lot more police can do to detect and prevent drink driving related accidents.

But after conducting 128 separate road blocks over the six-week holiday crackdown – that’s about 21 per week or three per day – just 37 DUI arrests were made.

National Roads Authority Director Brian Tomlinson says he believes RCIPS can still police for traffic violations more consistently, but he also believes there’s a limit to what the RCIPS can accomplish on its own.

“A lot of our problems could be solved by driver’s education programmes and more consistent policing,” Tomlinson says. “But our roads are not up to the standard that you will see in most developed countries.”

Moreover, an updated ‘road code’ – basically a traffic blueprint for Cayman drivers which hasn’t been update since the 1970’s – was submitted to the Ministry of District Administration in mid-2009. Around the same time, the ministry was presented with the roads authority’s long range transportation plan; which essentially identifies areas where local roads should be re-paved, widened or changed to improve traffic flow.

Tomlinson says that’s also an important step to better road safety.

“Along with improved traffic flow you get improved safety,” he says.

For instance, the roads authority has been a major advocate of lowering the speed limit on West Bay Road – where Michael Edgington was struck and killed – and changing several areas where traffic trouble persists.

At the Raleigh Quay, West Bay Road intersection near Public Beach, the roads authority would like to place a roundabout at what is now a T-junction to put more traffic onto the Esterley Tibbetts Highway. The authority would also like to remove the light at Lawrence Boulevard, install a roundabout and put in pedestrian crossings. Pedestrian crossings are also in the plans for the Strand shopping centre and another just south of Camana Way on West Bay Road.

The pedestrian crossings planned by the authority “will be very well lit and with signage they will become very, very visible”, Tomlinson said.

A number of road widening and extension projects are also being planned in George Town, but the only project sure to be completed at the moment is the widening of Elgin Avenue to accommodate the new Government Administration Building.

“Right now, funding is a pretty dismal subject over here,” Tomlinson said. “I don’t expect any large increase in funding for road construction next year.”

Cell phone ban

Distracted driving is another major issue for the Cayman Islands, but a partial ban on the use of cell phones – which was proposed by both the roads authority and RCIPS 18 months ago – has not materialised.

The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service and a Seventh-day Adventist Church group are targeting 2011 as the year when that will hopefully change.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency – an arm of the Seventh-day Adventists – began a public education and survey effort focused on the dangers of “cell phone” driving, including texting and Internet browsing, last year. A survey on the subject that began in late October has now been completed and the agency’s local deputy director for special projects, Mitch Evans, has now released those results.

“We have also been in touch with members of the government advising them of our intent to launch this programme, as well as the future plans to have legislation tabled before the Legislative Assembly to enact such laws against cell phone driving in the Cayman Islands,” Evans says.

According to the survey, 71 per cent of those local residents polled said they talked on their cell phone while driving “often”. Fifty-eight per cent said they had either sent or read a text message on a handheld device while driving.

Almost every single responded to the survey, even if they admitted to text messaging while driving themselves, said they believed it was a dangerous activity.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency did some preliminary research in 2010 about efforts to ban texting and cell phone use while driving in the United States.

According to the agency’s research, 30 out of 50 US states have banned text messaging while driving for all drivers. Eight other states have partial bans on texting while driving.

“Partial bans apply to specific people such as school bus drivers or persons between the age of 18-20,” the group stated.

The agency identified eight US states that had already enacted laws to ban handheld cell phone use while driving and five other states had partial bans in place.

“No [US] states currently have laws enacted to ban headset or hand-free cell phone devices,” the church agency said. “However, partial laws are in place in 29 states, which prohibit [hands-free devices] for bus drivers, under age 18 drivers and novice drivers,” the agency stated.

Not all US states that have enacted cell phone bans as ‘primary offences’. This means that in some US states drivers can only be cited for cell phone usage while driving if they are first pulled over for another offence such as speeding or reckless driving.

“The range of fines for those caught breaking the law in relation to cell phones [is] anywhere from US$50 to US$1,000 depending on the state,” the Adventist agency stated.

Points system

Cayman Islands Road Safety Advisory Council President Aileen Samuel doesn’t pull punches when talking about Cayman driving.

“Because we’ve got no road code the driving standard here is crap,” Samuel says, agreeing with Tomlinson that the code should be updated and placed in the regulations of an update Traffic Law as soon as possible.

One thing the road safety council has often pushed for is the introduction of the 12-point system for drivers, similar to what is used in the United Kingdom.

Drivers are presented with a list of offences when they receive a licence in the UK and are told how many points will be deducted from their 12 for each infraction.

“If you’ve got a bald tire you’ve got three points, if you’ve done careless driving that’s six points, if you’ve done a DUI that can be nine points,” she says. “Once people reach three points…their driving standard is immaculate.”

Once a licence has collected 12 points the person holding it is automatically disqualified for a year, regardless of the offences committed. If it’s a drink driving case, drivers can lose their licence for three years.

“You know, up front, what the penalties are, so it’s up to you to keep the car in check,” Samuel says.

She says previous suggestions at implementing the points system for drivers have not met with success, partly because of a lack of computerised records and partly due to a lack of political will for such a programme.