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Bill to repeal archaic Road Traffic Act gives minister, ITA enormous powers

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, June 10, 2014    

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TEN years after the process began, Government has finally tabled a Bill to repeal the Road Traffic Act which became effective on April 1, 1938 and was once amended in 2005.

The long-awaited Bill, which was tabled in the House of Representatives last Wednesday by Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing Dr Morais Guy, invests enormous powers in both the minister and the country's primary traffic agency, the Island Traffic Authority (ITA), over the use of its roads, including traffic, rehabilitation, vending, public demonstrations, and the use of the sidewalks and available signage space.

Significant increases in the fines for breaches of the proposed new provisions have raised some concerns among the public. However, the enormous powers invested in the minister and the ITA are bound to become topical, as the Bill moves through Parliament and the expected submissions from stakeholders and the Opposition add to the process.

Guy pointed out in the sectoral debate in the House of Representatives Wednesday that Government's decision to repeal the current Act is in keeping with "international best practices for road safety adopted for local conditions".

"Since the Act was promulgated in 1938, there has been phenomenal development in the design of motor vehicles and roads, thus rendering various descriptions and requirements in the law obsolete," the Bill's Memorandum of Objects and Reasons states.

The Act is being modernised and updated primarily by making the ITA the licensing authority and to delegate its functions; broadening the role of the Road Traffic Appeal Tribunal; providing for the reclassification of all forms of vehicles; introducing new classes of driver's licences and attaching conditions to the granting of these licences; and the transportation of dangerous and hazardous substances.

In making the announcement, Dr Guy acknowledged that the ITA has often been characterised as corrupt, and that there are accounts of negative experiences in conducting business at the examination depots. But he insisted that ITA is in the midst of a

major transformation and modernisation process, and that steps have been taken to "give new life to its operations and to aggressively treat with the negative image".

"It makes no sense to skirt around the problem, rather we have opted to deal with them decisively and comprehensively," he told Parliament.

He said that, in an effort to safeguard the processes, there are plans to automate the testing of applicants for driver's licences during 2014/15, and remove the written aspect of the driving test.

"What this means, is that when an applicant goes for his/her licence, he/she will no longer use the traditional pencil and paper, but will input answers on a computer. Testing of the programme will take place at one of our Corporate Area depots with plans to expand it across the island," he explained.

Furthermore, he said, in an effort to address documentation challenges at the examination depots, the Ministry's Information Management Department is partnering with eGov Services Limited on an Automated Motor Vehicle System (AMVS). This will allow for the automation of vehicle fitness information. The pilot project will be tested at the Spanish Town, Harbour View, Swallowfield and Spanish Town Road depots before being rolled-out at all ITA depots.

"At that stage, paper-written certificates of fitness will be a thing of the past," the minister pointed out.

The fines cover a wide area and could create some problems even for the Government services, as the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) faces a fine of $22,000 for its smoking vehicles, and even imprisonment of staff for permitting "an unreasonable amount of smoke to escape from" the motor vehicle.

Political party supporters who love to travel seated in the windows of the buses or hanging outside, on their way to and from meetings and rallies, will now face a $15,000 fine.

People who block roads to make an impact in protesting social conditions face a fine of $20,000 for hindering or interrupting traffic, as well as for leaving objects in the road which endanger traffic.

Additionally, individuals vending on any road face a fine of $10,000, and those staging events, including street dances, without permission face a fine of $25,000.

And current JUTC Franchise Protection boss and former senior superintendent of police in charge of traffic, Radcliffe Lewis, would have found himself in trouble with this law for removing the 'No right turn' sign at Hope Road and Kingsway in St Andrew, as there is now a $50,000 fine and a month's imprisonment in default for removing road signs.

The issue of driving while using mobile phones and other technology has been of major concern for some time, and the Bill proposes that the use of any electronic communication or other devices, including video, while driving, will result in a $30,000 fine.

The transport ministry said that studies have shown that a motorist has only 90 per cent control of the vehicle when texting and driving, hence the need to come down on "texters" .

Sounding a horn "so as to make unreasonable noise" carries a fine of $12,000; failure to equip vehicle with seatbelts and failure to wear them will cost $10,000 for the passenger and $15,000 for a driver failing to ensure that the passenger wears it. A ticket for failing to use seat belts currently costs $500.

Driving children around without a child restraint system will carry a fine of $20,000; pillion riders without protective helmet, $15,000; failing to stop before reaching a place where children are crossing the road, $10,000; putting vehicles in motion while stoplights are showing red will cost $10,000; and overtaking a vehicle which has stopped at a pedestrian crossing, $10,000.

Refusing to allow trucks to be weighed, $50,000; obstructing traffic while delivering or loading goods, $20,000. With speed, improper overtaking and failing to keep to proper lanes listed among the main reasons for accidents and deaths on the roads, the penalties in the Bill include heavy fines for careless and reckless driving, including a $200,000 fine plus imprisonment for five years and a 12-month disqualification from holding a driver's licence. For reckless and careless driving causing death, a $250,000 fine is proposed. Exceeding the speeding limit is proposed at $20,000, but those racing on the roads face a fine of $100,000.

Other major penalties include $50,000 for driving under the influence of alcohol and up to $100,000 for failing to provide specimen of breath for breath analysis.

Driving without insurance coverage, $45,000; obscured licence plate and unaffixed registration, $10,000; driving unlicensed vehicle, $20,000 and contrary to terms of the licence, $30,000; driving without a driver's licence in your possession, $10,000, and driving without owning driver's or learner's licence, $40,000; failing to inform the authority of a change of address, $2,000, providing

false residential information, $5,000; applying for a driver's licence while being disqualified, $30,000, and driving while disqualified, $50,000.

The Bill also covers the use of signage on the roads, as people who put up advertisements without getting approval face a fine of $50,000.

However, the top fine is the $3 million proposed for individuals who go beyond the maximum laden weight for vehicles. Both houses of Parliament are expected to review the Bill before it is passed.

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