One of the worst things a state can do is to introduce a law it cannot implement. Ghana is often guilty of this action, none as blatant as the recent ban on using mobile phones to make or receive calls while driving. The new law is part of a raft of regulations that took effect last week Wednesday. It is a brilliant idea because research has long established that speaking on the phone while driving is a major cause of accidents. In Ghana, using the phone while driving is standard practice, even a status symbol; banning it would require more than pronouncing a new law. There are good reasons to fear that this law is redundant at birth.
In the first place, exemptions from the law will rapidly undermine its effectiveness. According to media reports, “security agency officials would be permitted to use their phones when they are driving to execute their duties”. Who are security agency officials, and how do we determine that they are driving to “execute their duties”? Has anyone ever seen a police officer driving normally in a traffic queue and obeying normal traffic rules? Police officers always take advantage of their status to drive in the middle of the road with lights blazing going nowhere official. When a police officer enjoying a social conversation on a mobile phone while driving knocks down a pedestrian he or she would claim that the conversation was duty related and would probably be believed; this being Ghana the poor pedestrian would either be dead or maimed while the police officer goes free.
Here is the danger. Once “security agency officers” are exempted, the law would be broken routinely by every policeman and women, every military officer and soldier, every immigration officer, every CEPS official, every fire service person, every prison officer, not to speak of the motley quasi-security agencies and even private security personnel who already behave as if they are above the law in this country. When that happens and hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians break the law via their uniforms, there will be no moral restraint on other citizens from doing the same. As I never tire of explaining, bad driving behaviour on the Spintex Road persists because the biggest offenders are those who believe that they are too big to be accountable to anyone. This mobile phone driving ban will go in that same direction of creating a two-tier society of those who can and those who cannot. Therefore, the exemptions make it a bad law.
There is no indication that security training modules include the use of mobile phones while driving, therefore a security person using a mobile phone while driving is just as dangerous as I am when I do the same thing. However, the result may not be the same because I, at least, would know that I was breaking the law while the security person would be acting with impunity. If we believe that instant communication facilitates the work of our security personnel, then we must fit ALL official security vehicles with the appropriately safe hands-free devices that enable them to work without posing a danger to themselves and others. Otherwise the law must apply to all drivers; simple. In any case, hardly would any security personnel “drive to execute their duty” singlehandedly, except in a few cases no security person will need to drive and use the phone at the same time.
In total, exempting security personnel of all descriptions would mean allowing more than a quarter of a million people to use their phones while driving. If you add medical personnel who can also claim exemption, journalists, electricity engineers, water and sanitation inspectors… You get the drift; we all perform work that can justify the use of mobile phones while we drive. Therefore exemptions of any kind will undermine and endanger the intentions of the law.
Another reason why this could be a divisive regulation is that it says nothing to reinforce the ban on tinted windows, if it is in force. There is no way a police officer or anyone can tell if a person driving a vehicle with tinted windows is speaking on the phone. Unless the use of tints on windows is banned (or the ban reinforced) this being Ghana, the number of such vehicles will increase astronomically within weeks just so people can get round the mobile phone ban. Again, there will be no point exempting some categories from the ban on tinted windows, apart from perhaps the President, the Vice President, the Speaker of Parliament and the Chief Justice. The rest of us should drive in transparent vehicles if we have nothing to hide. Plainly, unless we can ensure that we are all obeying the law, it is useless to have it on the statute.
Last Tuesday, the police Motor Traffic and Transport Unit belatedly announced a three-month period of public education on the law and other recently announced traffic regulations. Such reverse communications strategy is strange, to put it mildly. One would have expected the education to precede the law, or at least to start with the announcement of the law. Public education campaigns work best when they precede the action or event about which the public are to be educated. Take the switch from left to right hand driving in Ghana in 1974, which is an example of how good this country was in the past. Months of public education campaigns led to a massive switch in which not a single accident was recorded because the campaign was an integral part of the switch.
Now that the MTTU is going to embark on public education, what happens to the law? In the same announcement about public education, the MTTU said its own personnel “are now to educate themselves on the provisions of the new law…”, which begs the question – What do we do in the interim while they are studying the law? Is the ban in force or has it been suspended while the police study the law, or while we wait for the promised public education? To be fair, we have to acknowledge the MTTU boss’s responses in a recent media interview but they leave us no wiser about the main issue of whether the police know what they are doing? ACP Angwubutoge Awuni said that the police would arrest offenders because there were existing provisions that criminalized using phones while driving. The question is, if those provisions were adequate, why did we need a new regulation? When the police arrest me, would it be under the old ineffective law or the new one which the police are now studying?
It is obvious that this law is not ready for implementation, and its desired impact cannot be realised unless the ground rules are laid for it to be applied to affect every driver equally. After all, if the purpose of the law is to protect people rather than just arrest drivers, then it cannot do its work when thousands are exempted by law or hiding from it behind smoked glass. It is could be a bad law not because of its wording or the underlying principles but because of inadequate thinking and preparations. NO EXEMPTIONS, NO TINTED WINDOWS, EDUCATE THE POLICE, EDUCATE THE PUBLIC – IMPLEMENT.