By Nicholas Worrell
Although I am proud to be a U.S. Citizen, and was proud to serve as a U.S. Marine, I am also a native of Barbados. So on May 4, when I had the honor of addressing the International Road Federation 4th Caribbean Regional Congress, it was a homecoming of sorts for me.
I grew up between the Main Road and the beach on Barbados. Back then, you didn’t have to be rich to live beachfront; in fact, my father was a bus-driver for over 35 years. Back then most people took buses like the ones my father drove, and driving a bus was a simpler job; there were far fewer cars and motorcycles on the Main Road.
How times change. Today in the Caribbean it is common to own a car or a motorcycle. My father’s retired now, and has mentioned more than once that he’s glad he did his bus-driving before the Main Road got so crowded – even with the addition of a modern highway further inland.
The Caribbean is building its road capacity, and at the IRF’s 4th Caribbean Congress I am sharing some of the lessons we have learned in the U.S. and at NTSB. But the road safety journey is not a one-way street: I am learning as much from my counterparts in the Caribbean as they are from me.
Around the world, according to The World Health Organization, 500 children – yes, children – still die on our roads each day. The WHO further reports that road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death worldwide among young people aged 15–29 years.
Not heart disease. Not AIDS or any other infectious disease. Not Malaria. Road traffic injuries.
It’s been called an “Epidemic on Wheels,” and it’s a global problem.
The solution has to include not just better roads and signage, but better driver behavior, whether in the Caribbean or in the U.S.
The Honorable Dr. Morais Gay, MP from Jamaica said it best in his keynote address: “Road Safety is everyone’s problem.”
Or as John Donne put it, no man is an island. None of us stands alone in our fight against this epidemic of roadway injuries and fatalities.
For my part, I urged attendees at the congress to think big: to think about the day when we or our children live in a world with zero roadway deaths – the day when we can wipe out this epidemic on wheels.
The participants in this week’s IRF 4th Caribbean Congress are working hard to build new capacity safely. They are also working on the strategies that will result in changed driver behavior in their countries.
For example, many of the Islands are developing Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL). GDL allows time to teach safe driving behavior gradually to new drivers.
And attendees at the Congress, me included, are hard at work discussing the many layers of safety it will take to beat the epidemic – not just the right education, but the right legislation and the right enforcement.
This week is all work.
But when I’ve gone back to Barbados lately, I always feel the difference between the deadline-a-minute pace of U.S. life and the less harried island lifestyle.
Still, I bring some worries back with me when I visit Barbados. The laws of physics work the same there as they do here. An impaired, drowsy, or distracted driver is dangerous on any road. Not wearing a helmet or buckling a seatbelt can be deadly, whether on vacation or during your daily commute.
When I most recently visited Barbados, a 17-year-old woman needlessly lost her life on the Main Road – that same road next to which I grew up; that same road my father drove in a public bus.
She was a passenger on a motorcycle when the young rider decided to pop a wheelie. She fell off and was crushed by a bus.
A preventable crash, a young life taken too early, a young life cut too short. A 17-year-old woman who never got to realize her potential. A 17-year-old citizen who never got to contribute her own gifts back to the country that raised her — and me.
If you’re traveling to the Caribbean this year, don’t take a holiday from road safety. Buckle up in cars, and “gear up” before you get on a motorcycle.
And be glad that road safety in the Islands has other champions, people like the delegates at the IRF’s Caribbean Regional Congress.
Nicholas Worrell is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Communications.