16 August 2007

Mauritius: Penalty-point system for driving licence

Port Louis — A point system is one in which a driver's licensing authority issues demerits, or points to drivers on conviction for road traffic offences. A major offence may lead to more than the maximum allowed points being issued, but more typically, the accumulation of too many points over a given period or time can lead to additional penalties, including fines and suspension or revocation of the driver's license. The purpose of such point systems is to identify and deter repeat offenders of traffic laws and save lives on the road.

In jurisdictions, which use a point system, the police or licensing authorities maintain, for each driver, a driving score, typically an integer number specified in points. Traffic offences, such as speeding or disobeying traffic signals, are each assigned a certain number of points, and when a driver is determined to be guilty of a particular offence (by whatever means appropriate according to the legal system), the corresponding number of points are added to his total. When the driver's total exceeds a certain threshold, the driver may face additional penalties, be required to attend safety classes or driver training, be subject to re-examination, or lose his/her driving privileges. Under the proposed Mauritian system, it seems that the counter will start at zero, and points shall be totalled cumulatively for each and every offence.

This much awaited system is finally set to be realised soon and should be welcomed. However, certain aspects are questionable. Mauritius having its own unique socio-economic and political culture, it is inappropriate to copy any system from abroad and apply it here, without customising it to our local conditions. For example, in most countries there is no need for compulsory frequent renewal of driving licence. Where renewal exists, it is not the driving licence, but rather the photo-card which is renewed. In the UK, for example, a driving licence remains valid until the driver reaches the age of 70, but the photo-card has a limited life. This is due mainly because the photograph of the bearer should be changed over time.

In the Mauritian context, compulsory renewal means that more than 400,000 drivers should regularly visit the Traffic Branch, and this will be a cumbersome administrative hurdle. In most countries, the Licensing Agency has many regional branches across the country, and also within any city, and renewal can also be done online or by post. But in our local context, imagine drivers being forced to drive to the new Traffic Branch at la Tour Koenig and queue up for renewal. La Tour Koenig itself is an enclave region and, right now, accessing the area is a nightmare, given the traffic conditions. Imagine how it will be when La Tour Koenig is fully operational after the recently announced 10 billion rupees investment and 10,000 job creation are materialised. It is surely not by introducing further bureaucracy that we are going to save lives. On the contrary, this will add up to driver frustration and road rage.

Officials involved in the implementation of this new system should be very far-sighted and consider all possible implications, strengths and weaknesses to make it a success. For example, offence detection should be a fair exercise. Some people are able to escape the net whilst others are continually booked for road traffic offences. A quick glimpse at the daily court hearing lists for road offences in each district court will reveal that most of offenders seem to be the "ti-dimoun"! Does it mean the middle and upper class never break traffic rules? Last week this author witnessed a blatant case where the jet of the Hon minister of Public Infrastructure was parked on a double yellow line and partly on a bus stop lay-by at SSR St in Port Louis. A police officer present in the area turned a blind eye, in spite of the obstruction caused to other vehicles, especially buses accessing the bus stop. However, the same officer did not hesitate to shoo off a taxi that stopped momentarily a few yards away on another double yellow line! A little distance round the corner, at Dauphine St, near the Cathedral Church, two policemen were busy wheel-clamping an old car, apparently parked without displaying a parking ticket. However, a brand new BMW parked on a yellow line opposite escaped their eyes! Double standards do exist and, if equality and fairness are absent, people will resent the system. The prime minister, Navin Ramgoolam, a man of principles, should see to it that his deputy respects the law.

Ever since the new traffic scheme was set up in the morning at Bell Village, vehicles who now cannot turn right from the Port-Louis bound carriageway towards Old Moka Road, have to alight their passengers on the left side of the motorway near Food Canners Ltd. However, the police officer on duty there issues them a ticket for stopping by the road side! But where will these vehicles alight their passengers? Also, women and school children who alight from buses have to cross the motorway and climb over two railings that separate the lanes. Hon Beebeejaun failed to realise that a passageway should have been cut out to allow safe and easy crossing.

There are no driving standards in Mauritius. From field information gathered, it seems no two driving schools dispense the same methods and no two examiners test in the same way! Just like our education system teaches our children how to pass exams rather than imparting knowledge, similarly our driving instruction system prepares candidates for driving tests rather than teaching driving skills for life. Once someone passes his test and obtains a licence, there is no follow-up, and no further driving course. The police should consider introducing its own in-house courses, in collaboration with the IVTB, etc. intended for drivers. The purpose is to encourage them become better drivers. Inspiration should be drawn from the Pass Plus and other schemes run by the DVLA in UK. The national television could have played an important role by designing a weekly TV programme, to be presented by police officials in association with driving instructors to educate existing and aspiring drivers. Real-life road scenes depicting various offences could be captured and screened on TV as part of an ongoing educational campaign. Car dealers would surely be too glad to sponsor such programmes.

The UK licensing system distinguishes between automatic and manual vehicles The local Traffic Branch should consider issuing "Automatic Only" driving licences. It is ridiculous to subject to a "manual" test persons who are interested in automatic vehicles only!

The overall road infrastructure, road signage, etc should be reviewed so that motorists are not "obliged" to commit an offence. For example, in some places, you are obliged to cross white lines to avoid a protruding man hole cover. Under a penalty point system, drivers are expected to be over-cautious but the authorities should ensure road network, traffic signs, equipment and road markings meet acceptable norms.

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