Accident paralyses country

By Raffique Shah
June 18, 2011

Raffique ShahI WAS seething with anger last week Tuesday—and I was not even among the tens of thousands of commuters trapped in horrendous traffic jams that paralysed around 25 per cent of Trinidad. One fuel tank wagon overturns close to the Gasparillo/ Petrotrin flyover on the Hochoy Highway and commuters from as far north as the CR Highway intersection, through all of central-south Trinidad, steam in their stalled or slow-moving vehicles for up to seven hours. And we lay claim to being on the brink of developed country status?

Give me a break! I was not in the traffic, but I first observed its deleterious effects when I took my ritual late-afternoon walk. The street on which I exercise runs off the Cedar Hill Road, Claxton Bay, not far from the Southern Main Road (SMR) Junction. When I got to the intersection, I saw the west-bound lane jammed with vehicles. They hardly moved. I had heard of the noon accident on the news, which also spoke of heavy traffic on the Hochoy and Butler highways, and advised motorists to use alternative routes.

But I never imagined that at 5 p.m. people would be still stewing every-which-by-way, not to add being at a standstill on the highways. As I walked, I peered in both directions, looking for police officers. Not a uniform in sight. I hear sirens, presumably from ambulances trying to force they way through the logjams, to take patients for medical attention. Earlier, I had received phone calls from friends and relatives who were stuck in the mess and asking about alternative routes. I offered what advice I could, but it hardly helped.

Later, on television news, when I saw images of Disaster Day, I was livid.

Traffic was at a standstill, or barely moving, from as far north as the CR intersection. Trinidad had suffered a major stroke: its main artery was severed. From other reports, all ancillary roads, including the alternative SMR, were similarly stricken.

Some wise fools (an oxymoron, I know!) decided to abruptly stop traffic in both directions as close as 150 metres to the overturned tank wagon. Had that tanker exploded, scores or people closest to it would have been blown to shreds or burnt to death. I am sure, too, infirm persons trapped in the jam must have suffered, maybe even died later, as a consequence of the torture they had undergone.

Instead of a disaster plan, what the authorities inflicted on us was an unplanned disaster.

What irks me most is that there were options available to mitigate the mess. In a situation like that, given where the accident happened, the Gasparillo and San Fernando police, as well as officers from nearby Petrotrin’s security, should have been first on the scene. Fire officials from Petrotrin and San Fernando would be next: they focus on averting an explosion, which, in this instance, they did.

Recognising the magnitude of the challenge, the senior police officer in the accident zone alerts the Police Commissioner who directs a senior officer to quickly evaluate the problem using a helicopter from the Air Guard of the Defence Force. While aboard, he notes the extent of the highway jam, and orders divisional chiefs to mobilise manpower to divert traffic from the highways onto alternative roads.

He sees the feeder roads, as well as the SMR, similarly clogged. Clearly, there is need for maximum police personnel to keep traffic moving along these roads. The two new Augusta Westland helicopters move into action, collecting police officers and maybe soldiers in Port of Spain or Chaguaramas or San Fernando. The helicopters make several trips, and within two hours, officers are strategically deployed at key points on the highways, the feeder roads and most of all on the SMR.

The helicopters use playfields nearest the “trouble spots” (mainly junctions) to drop off officers. They run to their nearby posts and immediately regulate traffic. This task is no high science—I have seen civilians do it at accident spots. On the SMR, a major challenge is maxi-taxis that insist on stopping in the middle of the road to drop off or pick up passengers. If they insist on being boorish in the midst of a crisis, park them aside for the day!

Traffic wardens should litter districts like Marabella, the San Fernando By-Pass, and similar alternative routes, again, keeping traffic moving. No parking is allowed on any of these clogged roads. So on the ground you have a few hundred officers dealing with a crisis situation, and in the air, helicopters patrol the clogged arteries hailing offenders (parked vehicles, for example), ordering them to get moving or get off the roads.

Assuming such mobilisation got underway one hour after the mishap (1 p.m.), by 3 p.m. the sections of the highway closest (Claxton Bay to Tarouba) would have been clear of all vehicles, even if that meant having them drive in the wrong direction, to get them out of harm’s way. With adequate officers policing the “escape” routes, traffic will have flowed, albeit at a slow pace. But such plan will have allowed for the disabled tanker to be made safe and removed from the highway by 3 p.m., restoring the free flow of traffic.

There is much more I can write about handling such crises with military precision. However, if the best solution Minister Jack Warner can come up with is a ban on heavy trucks from the nation’s roadways during daytime, what can a sober citizen say? Go, Boyo, go!!

10 Responses to “Accident paralyses country”


  • Well said! I see we still have some intelligence in our country!

  • Raf, I agree with you, but also, I was one of the persons who recommended moving heavy trucks along the highways at night. We do not have sufficient alternative roads to be able to cope with a leaking tanker truck of volatile fuel.
    Now, our road shoulders need upgrading, so that in a situation like this, traffic can be turned around, using the shoulders, in order to clear that essential 300ft to 500ft fireball area around the tanker.

    Both directions needed to be closed, because a spark from any vehicle could have caused a halocaust.

    Now, I start my day each morning, by lighting a prayer candle for TnT. I pray that my people would be safe, and our leaders would make good decisions. The dropped the ball on that day. I cannot tell you the horror I felt watching the pictures after the fact- Vendors selling, people liming the \accident. A similar situation in Nigeria a couple years back, along the main road , blew away an entire village.We need safety e Sometimes, fifty-foot containers are parked on the street, and used as storage. CArs cannot get through freely, an ambulance cannot get through freely and an for a fire truck? You really joking.ducation for all, and safety drills for the armed services. We tend, when a new highway is constructed, to ignore the previous one. They should be maintained so as to provide evacuation routes. Our Min. of Works and the armed forces, as well as the fire services need to do a county by county assessment of traffic security. There are places in El Socorro, Barataria/San Juan and Arima where you cannot use an alternate road because some contractor is using it for storage of building materials.
    We need to designate alternate routes with specially marked bright yellow signs, so that if someone is not familiar with the road, they ould find their way out. we also need a radio station dedicated by the state to road safety issues so people could swutch to that station if an emergency alert is sounded on all other radio stations.In the US, its NOAH radio.
    When the police block off a road due to an emergency like this, people love to vent their cheek on them. We have to educate our people to follow the law.
    Just two days ago, and area near me(20mls) was threatened by an enormous bush fire. The police needed to evacuate two streets in harms way. they went door to door, and people poured out, running to safety. Nobody stopped to pack, it was jump in you car if you can, and go, if car was away at work, run.
    This is how people save lives. When there is a chemical alert, there is a SHELTER IN PLACE order. That means turn off your AC and stay inside with your TV on for further instructions.
    There are friends of mine in TnT who say they ould “Never live in the US” but that country works, because they plan.

  • In my nightmare moments, I still see that rolling fireball mushrooming down the highway in both directions, and the number of days it would take to clear all the burnt out vehicles, and identify what remains there may be in the cars and buses, of the accident that took no lives when than tanker overturned. A tanker truck carrying volatile fuel, should not leak unless the skin of the tank ruptures. The valves are supposed to be so secure.
    If these fuel haulers are not up to standard, I would suggest that the United States (NTBS) National Transportation Safety Board, be asked to assist with standardizing safety features on our tanker trucks. It is also time that the Transport Ministry set up weigh stations along the highways, where eighteen wheelers are REQUIRED to pull into to be weighed, and checked for other safety violations. That is Standard Operating Practice in the US, in every state that I have travelled in, which is about half of them.
    It was a factor in my recent trip to Malawi, where the main highway from north to south is a contiguous road with Kenya, Tanzania and ends in South Africa, while running parallel to Mozambique for many miles. Trucks frequently carry heavier loads than they are allowed. Cheap if you get through, deadly if there was an accident.All of East Africa is a mountain range higher than the Northern Range, so brakes are important.We went on safari in a rather ratty looking Land Rover that I was sure was not roadworthy. The driver stayed on the long back rods while going. In the safari park, the vehicle stalled in a sand bank. We had to get out and push, rcking it back and forth, while praying that elephants did not come trumpeting down the road, and the lazy hippo stayed where we could see him. Sure enough, on the way back to our hotel, we ran into a road block. A brisk police officer checked the vehicle and found 21 violations. The driver pleaded that he had to take us back to our hotel, so his vehicle was tagged with a bright yellow paper, so he could take us home, then report to the nearest police station where the vehicle would be impounded. You hear a lot about “corruption” in Africa. Try telling that or offering a bribe to those soldiers guarding the main highway running through Malawi.They look like they were all recruited from the Masai. Tall, slender, stern, they had waved us through in two other vehicles on other occasions. Not this time!We need some officers like that inspecting vehicles,especially trucks in TnT, but they need to be trained in what to look for.They need a checklist. The next accident could be on an overpass, or along the Eastern Main Road in Tunapuna on a Saturday morning.May God have mercy on us!

  • I hope a good proportion of them would think about taking the under-utilized ferry service between POS and Sdo. Public officials should set the example and take the ferry. Manning? The ferry service was set up under his regime. This is one of the measures I proposed many years ago when I saw traffic building up as far back as the Chaguanas flyover at 5am! Now it’s backed up to Freeport Jctn a distance of 25 miles of traffic jam. People wake up!!!
    Flex time should be the other measure that gov’t offices can implement immediately – some work 6-2, 7-3, 8-4, even 11-7pm. Buses should be free between 10am to 3pm. A toll fare during rush hour. That’s a good 10-15% traffic reduction right there.

  • I have been proposing flex time for years now. But almost everyone disagrees with me. They say that that would never work in Trinidad – boy you don’t know Trinis! The’ll sign up for 11am and still leave at 2pm! Then how about better supervision and accountability? A good supervisor should know how much work is expected from an employee each day and week.

    This brings me to another measure: TELECOMMUTING! This should be encouraged by employers – even start with one day a week. Shah, do you really need to go to the Express office in POS every day to write your column? You’re a good example of working from home and not adding to the traffic.

    In all the articles complaining about traffic, I don’t see any good recommendations. I’m all for the high speed rail – think 50 years from now.
    I plan to ride my bicycle from Chaguanas to POS wearing my t-shirt “one less car”. Even though I’ll be sucking in a lot of fumes, look out for me.

  • The question of transportation in an out of the city POS and Sando)by mass transit, would include the answer to one critical question: If I leave my car home and take the bus, and an evacuation is needed due to floods, or hurricane, will the buses run till all those needing to go home have gotten home? What plans do the planning agents have for utilizing every available soldier, in addition to the police, to be part of the evacuation of the city in a safe manner? Who will be directed to go along which roads, and will our lawless people follow instructions? A mother with three kids at home will want to get through by the fstest, shortest route. It will take tremendous faith in the government to stay put(Shelter in place) while other people are evacuated first.

    A people can be re-trained to think differently, but it takes time, and a faith that the government in power has the capacity to plan, the will to plan and the manpower and other resources to carry out the plan.

    There is the need for a national planning committee, with branches in every county, that seeks the public input in these critical national questions.

  • Yeah: it took me the better part of 4 hours to drive from San Fernando to Couva. The funny thing was that the authorities kept advising of the use of alternate routes, but there were not many, and it was difficult to get to the alternate routes. One radio announcer continuously advised the use of the Brasso-Carapo Road instead of the Brasso-Caparo Road. And I agree that the police presence on the roadways would have certainly helped, but not like the manner of two officers in Marabella who barged their way into the traffic, came out of their police vehicle with heavy guns strung from their necks and started to bully drivers into submission.

  • Try to imagine how Cuban officials would have handled this situation, or how the US/State government would have handled it. In both cases you have a disciplined, educated populace, who knows that the authorities have an overall plan.

    If such a disaster had occurred in either of those places, in one, senior people would have been racking their brains analysing what to do differently, in the other public input would have been invited by a commission of inquiry and new rules put into place. Which of these is TnT doing, anybody knows? I suspecyt we are just waiting on anotherr Oh Mi Gosh event.

  • This comment is a spin-off from Garvin’s and is devoted wholly to “Police with big guns” etc.

    1972. Delaware: A robbery in which a 17 year old girl was involved. They shot up the Concord Motel ,and took off .Police chase ensued. She crashed through a road block and escaped. Later, she was involved in a firefight with three officers. They buried two of the officers a week later.Mistake: They were dealing with a seasoned criminal, but saw a pretty blonde with curls.
    Since then, in all US states and satellite countries, police do roadblocks armed to the teeth. They do not know who is an armed criminal, an escaping murder, or who is transshipping a cargo of guns or drugs.They may be cayotes carrying illegal immigrants.They pull you over for a traffic violation(As they did the Oklahoma City Bomber) and its something else major they are dealing with.
    When police stop people at a roadblock, they have a reason. sit quietly in your car, get you license and insurance out and put them on your dashboard. If its at night, call someone on your cellphone and give your location, or dial your landline if you have an answering machine at home and say where you are and what is happening. In 2007, myself, and tree others, dressed in evening clothes were pulled over at a roadblock in Tobago. About twenty officers with assault rifles were manning the post. At first we thought it was an accident, and took a back road, but that had been planned for and the back road was blocked just as it was rejoining the highway.We were all from other countries, and we were the tenth car in the line. We got out our documents, anda fter a cursory glance at the driver’s and a statement by him about where we were going, we were waved on. We lost about 45 minutes, but if there were crooks in that line-up that evening, the cops were prepared to give them thunder.
    I have never been arrested, not charged with anything bigger than a speeding ticket. I have had a driver’s licence since 1967.
    Attitude, and co-operation rather than cheek and anger is what is needed.Trinis do not believe in their police officers, and wantonly disrespect them.
    Now, once I was speeding down the street where I live, I did what I call a rolling stop at the stop sign a block from my house. A policemn on the cross street took off after me. I put on my emergency flasher, and pulled into my driveway; opened the garage, so he could see I live there, got out of my car, offered him my handbag and keys and said “Wait a minute, I have to go to the bathroom!” and turned to go into my house. He began laughing, and said “take care” and drove off. I really did have to go. He was young enough to be my son, and armed to the teeth, but he understood what some people need that could cause a rolling stop.Politeness and explanations, and obedience where needed, helps, every time.

  • Linda – typical Trinidadian – looking at the exception rather than the rule and a closed mind to progress. You also lose me by your anecdotes and verbosity.Can you get out of POS easily now in your car if there is a flash flood? Psst with less cars on the road due to flex time, ferry, HS rail, getting to your car and out of the city would be easier. Maybe the high speed train would be better.

    I’m sure You also agreed to scrap the railways because it wasn’t turning a profit. Do any public transit in the world turn a profit? Look what the rail (set up my the British) has done to India and Kenya. It’s true – we can easily break down and burn, but we cannot build. Bring back the rail that the myopic leader dismantled in the name of independence and anti-colonialism! Stop thinking in terms of 5 years – think 15, 25, 50 years from now. What are we leaving for your kids and grand-kids with our current oil & n.gas riches?
    One more thing – increasing decentralization of gov’t offices and business and traffic will follow.

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