On the eve of Christmas last year, a section of the Judiciary, led by His Lordship Justice Jones Dotse, held a press conference at the newly constructed Appeal Court in Kumasi to explain last year's decision by the courts to vary sentences and fines imposed on drivers found guilty of committing various forms of motor traffic offences in the country.
Before the press conference, which was attended by a cross-section of journalists in Kumasi, there had been public outcry about the spate of accidents in the country and their effect on the citizenry.
While many innocent passengers and pedestrians lost their lives in some of these avoidable accidents, many others who survived suffered various forms of permanent injuries, making it totally impossible for them to make ends meet or contribute meaningfully towards any sustainable national development.
Such accident victims had to depend on their immediate family members, friends and sympathisers for their daily bread and other basic needs that make life worth living.
Their family members, children and others, who solely depended on the victims for survival, such as those which involved the 34 Catholic faithful who perished at Akropong in the Ashanti Region about two years ago, as well as the 21 victims of the Deeper Life Christian Ministry who perished at the Santasi Roundabout a few years ago, and the most recent one, where 12 passengers died at Anyinamso No. 2, near Nkawie in the Ashanti Region, are going through hectic problems.
It was to ensure that sanity prevailed on the highways and make travelling safer that the public called for stiffer punishment for reckless drivers who continued to 'slaughter' passengers and pedestrians on the major highways and trunk roads in the name of accident.
In an address to inaugurate the ultra-modern Accident and Emergency Centre at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (KATH) on November 8, 2008, and considering the regular loss of lives and property and their impact on the economy, former President John Agyekum Kufuor directed the police "to enforce road traffic regulations by promptly arresting and prosecuting drivers whose conduct results in avoidable accidents".
He also called on the Judiciary to "exact swift and harsh punishment for deviant drivers found guilty of road traffic regulations as a way of deterring others".
“The killing and maiming of innocent Ghanaians through vehicular accidents cannot continue, and measures should be put in place to curb the menace before it gets out of hand,” the former President stressed.
Stressing further, former President Kufuor urged the police “to collaborate with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) and the Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU) to intensify the monitoring and enforcement of road traffic regulations to bring discipline on the roads”.
Expressing concern over the spate of vehicular accidents on the major trunk roads in the country and the negative impact they have on the human and natural resources, former President Kufuor noted, “The whole nation should be concerned about the numerous unnecessary and avoidable road accidents.”
Referring to a front-page story in the Daily Graphic of July 27, 2000, which stated, “Ghana is rated among the leading six accidents prone countries in the world, and within the proceeding six years, 6,517 lives were lost, and 51,877 people injured in road accidents,” Mr Kufuor stressed further, “Any society with a sense of fellow-feeling will be deeply worried by such horrifying statistics, so will a government which is investing so much in human resource development.”
It was based on the impunity with which some drivers recklessly slaughtered commuters and maimed others on the major highways, creating a state of panic among passengers in the country that caused the public to appeal to authorities in the country to institute measures that would bring sanity to the driving public to make travelling more enjoyable and comfortable.
It was therefore very ironic that while the Judiciary responded positively to the public outcry by imposing heavy fines and prison terms on recalcitrant drivers found guilty of road traffic offences, to deter others, politicians who should have given their blessings to the actions of the Judiciary to calm the nerves of the pubic, rather criticised the action of the Judiciary in diverse ways.
Using the 2008 general election as their main tool, some politicians found everything wrong with the judicial sanctions of recalcitrant drivers, especially those convicted for their recklessness on the road, and therefore used their campaign platforms to assure such convicts of their freedoms at the least opportunity.
It was based on scoring political points by using convicted reckless drivers as one of their baits that the issue of convicted drivers gained prominence in the Ghanaian body politic, thus creating the impression that stiffer punishment meted to deviant drivers was inhuman.
It was on similar grounds ,that the Judiciary held the press conference in Kumasi and made frantic efforts to explain why some drivers were convicted in the first place, and why their sentences were later reviewed.
As part of his explanation during the press conference on why the sentences were reviewed, Justice Jones Dotse, who is a Justice of the Supreme Court, noted that “the recent decision to vary the sentences and fines of some persons convicted for motor traffic offences had nothing to do with political machinations, but a judicial principle to address some illegalities that have occurred since October 3, 2008”.
Explaining further, he said the passage of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act 2008, Act 761, by Parliament, which “was duly gazetted and therefore became law in Ghana, was not immediately brought to the courts' attention”.
He pointed out that it was to address the illegalities that the Chief Justice mandated the Supervising High Court Judges to use the provisions in section 52 and 53 (3) of the Courts Act, 1993, Act 459 in addressing Motor Traffic offences.
He also explained that after the passage of the bills into law, “courts in Ghana ought to have stopped the application of the penal sanctions in Act 683 and instead apply the penal sanctions in Act 761”.
“The failure to have brought the passage of Act 761 immediately to the attention and that of the police who mainly prosecute motor traffic offences, can be said to be a system failure between the legislature, the government and the Judiciary," he announced.
A press release also read at the press conference and signed by the Judicial Secretary, Justice Alex B. Poku-Acheampong, emphasised the directives of the Chief Justice to all courts in the country to vary or review all sentences passed within the period that were at variance with the provisions of the new law, Act 76l.
The result of these directives is that, where appropriate, all terms of imprisonment imposed on convicted persons will be set aside, and fines imposed will also be reviewed and reduced.
Prompt steps would be made to ensure that all fines already paid in excess of those authorised under Act 761, would be refunded to those concerned by the Controller and Accountant General's Department after proof of due payment had been exhibited, he stressed.
The release also hinted, “The Chief Justice has also informed all other stakeholders in the criminal Justice delivery system such as the Attorney-General's Department, the Police Service and the Ghana Prisons Service about the various steps taken by the Judicial Service to ensure that only the penal sanctions provided in the new Road Traffic Law, Act 761 are applied.”
Based on the decision of the court to review all sentences imposed on convicted drivers, those serving various prison terms were promptly released last year, while others whose fines were found to be in contravention of Act 761 had the excess refunded to them.
All these events unfolded during the election year in 2008, indicating that in election years, when the political temperature is adequately heated, the politicians would be prepared to sacrifice anything that militate against their onward march for power, no matter the consequence.
For, if that was not the case, how could drivers found guilty of committing various road traffic offences, most of which led to the untimely death of prominent citizens in the country, and permanently maimed others, be set free by competent courts of jurisdiction that sentenced them?
While the offending drivers are enjoying unlimited freedoms with their licences intact making it possible for them to engage in productive ventures and live comfortable lives, their victims and their dependants are wallowing in the quagmire of despondency due to the problems they are going through.
Records of road traffic accidents for the past three years in the Ashanti Region alone, made available to the Daily Graphic by the Ashanti Regional Police Motor Traffic and Transport Unit (MTTU), indicated that as many as 974 passengers and pedestrians were 'slaughtered' on the highways in the Ashanti Region between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2008.
The records revealed that while 268 passengers and pedestrians died in vehicular accidents in the Ashanti Region between January 1 and December 31 last year, the number was lower at 198 during the same period in 2007.
However, as many as 408 passengers and pedestrians who were making meaningful contributions towards sustainable socio-economic development in the country were killed in vehicular accidents in the region between January 1 and December 31, 2006.
In all, 6,798 vehicles were involved in accidents in the Ashanti Region during the period under review.
The vehicles were totally or partially destroyed, creating serious financial problems for their owners.
The Ashanti Regional Police Commander of the Motor Transport and Traffic Unit (MTTU), DSP Oduro Abrokwa, who briefed the Daily Graphic on the spate of accidents in the region, explained that a total of 2,427 vehicles were involved in accidents between January 1 and December 31, 2008, with the number reducing to 1,514 during the same period in 2007.
DSP Oduro Abrokwa pointed out that between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2006, the recorded number of vehicles that were involved in accidents in the Ashanti Region stood at 2,857.
Mr. Abrokwa attributed the increasing number of accidents as usual to indiscipline on the part of commercial and private drivers, saying “the MTTU has always strived to educate drivers on the need to respect road traffic regulations to bring sanity onto the highways but our advice has always fallen on deaf ears”.
He mentioned speeding, wrongful overtaking, overloading of vehicles and inadequate maintenance of vehicles as some of the major causes of road traffic accidents and gave the assurance that the police would continue to educate drivers for them to appreciate the need to respect road traffic regulations to ensure sanity on the road.
“It is very disturbing that notwithstanding the educational campaigns which were conducted for drivers within the Ashanti Region by the Regional Road Safety Commission and the police, drivers flouted and disregarded road safety signs on our roads, leading to fatal accidents and death, as well as injuries, to innocent passengers," he explained.
Mr Abrokwa said investigations conducted on accident-related cases in the region also proved that drivers refused to rest when they were tired, and this caused some of them to sleep while driving, leading to head-on collision that usually caused many deaths and serious injuries to passengers onboard such vehicles.
The Regional MTTU Commander said in most cases drivers who attended funerals and other social gatherings at the weekends also took advantage of the occasion to quaff a lot of alcoholic beverages and became intoxicated in the process.
Such drivers, he said, “drive recklessly on the road, because their sense of judgement was mostly impaired, which results in fatal accidents”.
These are the palpable truth on the situation on the highways, which needs to be curtailed as the country strives to advance into the middle-income brackets.
What is ironic is why the immediate past government, which clamoured for stiffer punishment for reckless drivers found guilty of committing road traffic offences, panicked and introduced laws that relaxed the punishment for offending drivers at the time the then opposition was using the law as a weapon on their campaign platform to canvass for votes.
With the punishment against drivers who disregard road traffic regulations and create havoc on the highways now relaxed, drivers seem to have been given the green light to continue causing mayhem on the highways with impunity as the years roll by.
It therefore behoves civil society to stand up and cry out very loud at every part of the country to let our politicians appreciate the need to join civil society in their quest to bring sanity onto the highways.
Drivers should be made to understand that reckless driving that leads to slaughter on the highways is criminal, just as armed robbery, and that those whose action leads to the loss of lives and property should not be spared.
This is the only way that would deter potential reckless drivers from being reckless and appreciate the need to be circumspect on the highways to create sanity for the travelling public.
Politicians, irrespective of their political affiliations, should unite with a common voice to appreciate the need to collaborate with the judiciary and punish reckless drivers who have now turned the highways into a slaughter house, killing and maiming defenseless passengers and pedestrians.
It is only when this happens that sanity will finally prevail on the highways to make passengers and pedestrians safe on our roads.
Written by George Ernest Asare
Daily Graphic, Kumasi
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