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OPINION: Sleeping policemen. Who watches out for whom?

by GHK Lall

Wikipedia offered this extended description cum definition of a sleeping policeman: Speed bumps (or speed breakers) are the common name for a family of traffic calming devices that use vertical deflection to slow motor-vehicle traffic in order to improve safety conditions. Variations include the speed hump, speed cushion, and speed table.

“[F]amily of traffic calming devices” and “vertical deflection” and “slow motor-vehicle traffic” are some of the things that Guyanese drivers, pedestrians, and observers can identify with when they behold what for some now represent entrenched reasons that trigger continuing astonishment, increasing pungency, and outright dismissal. If anyone thinks for a moment that I speak of inanimate objects, I insist upon immediate rethinking. This is because, to my regret, disappointment, and embarrassment, I am writing about (and speaking of) living, breathing, standing members of the Guyana Police Force. The Traffic Chief, though he may be taken aback, should be even more concerned and occupied with what enrages Guyanese domestic travelers daily, if not hourly, in many places in Guyana.

For there is this contradiction at work and before full public gaze, (followed by the glares). They are the dedicated, industrious traffic officers busy standing upright, with arms gesticulating for movement from north to south, east and west, and while holding other lines in check. It is hard, unrelenting work for a good hour during peak morning times at congested intersections. There is Camp and Lamaha, and Vlissengen and Lamaha, to name but two. At those points (and others) there are the usually young uniformed men and women keeping Guyana going in the closest thing to an orderly procession. It is a thankless, demanding, weather-stressed duty. They do it well. I commend them, I laud Traffic Chief Isles for these stalwart few. Now I must depart, and speak for, what I believe, would be the great majority of daily Guyanese movers, be they men, women, young, old, students, or workers. I think I am voicing their consternations and frustrations. On this rare one, there may not be any social or political (know what I mean…) disputes.

Then there are those other police traffic officers. Though alive, they meet the definition above of sleeping policemen; they qualify for inclusion in that dormant pantheon of the sluggish, the indifferent, the unmoved, and unmoving. Stated differently, they stand or drive or ride as undeniable and all too visible examples of some of the things wrong with the GPF; indeed, wrong with this society, when carefully and honestly examined. They are dead to the Guyanese traffic world.

As Wikipedia stated, a “family of… devices.” There is a family of them: congregated under trees out of the sun, engaged on phone or with phone, immersed in conversation with colleagues or passing friends, and all of this while totally unconscious and uncaring as to what unfolds right before them, and cries out for intervention and assistance. Instead of me thinking that it is a case of ‘who cares?’ I submit that it is the unuttered equivalent of ‘not my job’. Or ‘they don’t pay me enough’. Or ‘nobody is watching’, and ‘nothing is going to happen’. I am sorry, but that is my reading and of countless others, too. They are so unresponsive that they might as well be devices made out of plastic or stone or wood. The world of Guyana passes by, with many thinking that ‘I should be paid for doing nothing, too.’

When local traffic ranks do so, they are not “traffic calming” but traffic incentivizing. That is inciting speeding, jumping the line, endangering. Instead of calming, there is the public intense agitating at these human devices that have seized up and locked up and transformed into virtual statues.

Returning to the Wikipedia entry, there was the part about “vertical deflection.” Indeed, by and large, Guyanese traffic cops, serve as upright deflections: they deflect attention and impatience from the road towards these apologies for public servants. They may be on a motorcycle patrolling around in a haze of pretended ignorance, while men without helmets whiz by, and others overtake recklessly and without fear right in front of them. This is really happening; just ask any occasional (not daily) commuter, and there is a story of a police driver or rider living in their own world, going about their own business. Just ask those East Bank commuters caught in snarled traffic and reduced to snarling. Only the ranks can tell what their real business priorities are. They are certainly not about traffic breach prevention; I think a strong case could be made for traffic violation capitalization.

Now for the last one from Wikipedia: to “slow traffic” and “improve safety.” Says who? To be executed by whom? Somebody must be kidding, right? The truth and reality are that these errant traffic police members operate by their own rules (encourages speeding and recklessness), and contribute to standards that have nothing to do with safety improvements. In fact, they turn safety on its head, and actually add to an already dangerous environment, by their malaise and physical and mental stagnancy.

I regret if the brass of the GPF take umbrage at content and tone. I think it belongs and most accurately. More unfortunately, the work of the few steadfast stars is blotted out by the chronic derelictions of duty by their comrades. People focus on what fails, what hurts, and what blows the mind.

Mr. GHK Lall is a Guyanese author, columnist and former financial analyst on Wall Street.