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Published On: Mon, Oct 20th, 2014

Horns and Lagos traffic

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By Ifeanyi Uddin

One of the more interesting dimensions to the management of the Ebola Viral Disease is the recourse by the medical profession to symptomatic treatment. Besides quarantining victims, hospitals, at present, simply monitor their vital statistics, infusing them with blood when necessary (and possible), and regularly rehydrating them. Thus, addressing only the symptoms of this ailment: a deadly haermorrhagic fever, towards the end of its course, patients are said to lose upwards of 10 litres of bodily fluids daily. But this attending to symptoms is only because there are currently no known cures for the disease, yet.

Interestingly, where known cures are available, the practice of concentrating on “symptoms” is a major invitation to fail. The ostrich, famously, buries its head in the sand trying to address its anxieties. Despite the diverse physiological mechanisms that often, underpin it, avoidance behaviour only leaves one increasingly vulnerable as real threats build up. Watching Lagosians observe a “horn free day” last Wednesday, I could not but wonder at how policies are twisted inside out here. First questions for me were obvious ones. Are we (denizens of this sprawling metropolis) mostly agreed that the blaring of car horns is welfare-negative? Do Lagosians simply love to hoot away? Or are there traffic episodes that call for horns to be used – and often, for that matter? On the balance of evidence, there is a strong case for responding in the affirmative to the second of these queries. (Lacking the necessary competence to weigh in either way, I ignore the first question.)

Decibel levels in the state are literally deafening. Prime place goes to the places of worship. Despite statutes forbidding the practice, churches and mosques bid for third party attention with noise so virulent as to be ungodly. The state government’s unwillingness/inability to bring this practice under leash may just be out of a love of noise. Then, there is our sense that no retail outlet worth being thus described may exist without bullhorns: shops selling music media lead the way, here. But our street hawkers (bread and butter, porridge mixes – in the early morning) come pretty close. The din at what passes for trade fairs seals this argument.

Yet, for traffic participants in Lagos, the “noise” from vehicle horns serves a different purpose. Weak traffic participants (cyclists, and pedestrians, largely) could, for obvious reasons, not have been part of the “horns-free” day. Yet, their road use is a crucial stimulus for the horns response. The absence of sidewalks and dedicated cycle paths mean that too many of these road users interact with traffic in often irresponsible ways. The horn is the currency without which these exchanges would have been more fatal. Ironically, while on the Marina and its axial roads, a World Bank-funded road network ensured that wide kerbs adorned the edges of the roads, the Lagos State government, by installing huge concrete flower vases in the middle of these pavements forces pedestrians back on to the main roads.

There was much confusion too, whether the “horns free day” applied to the ubiquitous yellow buses ― “danfos” ― (the main plinth of urban mass transit in the state). For one, most of these do not have horns installed on their vehicles. They, notoriously, accelerate loudly behind and besides other vehicles to advert other road users’ attention to their uncomfortably close presence. Add to this, the fact that the state government had once revealed that most drivers of these buses are visually impaired (but do not wear eye glasses) and/or drive under the influence of some narcotic, or the other, and you wonder what large purpose could have been served by including them under this initiative.

The horn therefore is a useful tool for navigating the chaos that is driving in Lagos. Having learnt to drive in a jurisdiction where one gave way to traffic on one’s left without compulsion, it has been hard not to use my horns driving in this town. Regular traffic (aside that is, from cyclists, pedestrians, and the “danfos”) do not have respect for lane markings. On multi-lane roads (the 3rd Mainland Bridge, for example), most drivers in Lagos exhibit quantum mechanical properties: they are on each lane at once until observed by a rapidly approaching driver, and beeped at; only then settling for a particular lane.

Even when these vehicles cease straddling lanes, knowledge of lane use is non-existent. I was taught that the outer right lane is for slow moving vehicles, while the left one is for overtaking. In Lagos, the reverse is the case, except when your vehicle breaks down. Then you build a bunker in the road to protect yourself against other road users. How many road users in the country (we move outside Lagos, here) are aware that they are obliged to give way if by traveling too slowly traffic builds up behind them?

The point was reached where I could have given a left arm not to drive in Lagos. I tried. But the short distance from my house to the bus stop was of a different challenge. The “area boy” owned much of this real estate; and like the trolls guarding the bridges in the primary school storybooks of old, you had to part with a toll to go past these set of Lagosians.

What would I give for the comfort of mass travel (underground or magnetic levitation) in Lagos? A lot, really. And at this point I wonder how much of the reduced use of horns in places where such mass transit schemes are in place, is the result of most commuters being off the roads at any given point in time?

It would seem, therefore, that the immediate task before the government in Lagos State is to educate road users about their rights and responsibilities in order to improve traffic ecosystems across the state. A second order responsibility is to build more roads with kerbs and dedicated cycle paths, enabling weak traffic participants to move about without jaywalking. But by far the biggest challenge is to build mass transit systems that take more commuters off the roads. Until then, I’ll keep my horns blaring to keep all around me safe.

Ifeanyi Uddin is on Premium Times Editorial Board


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