Traffic (mis)management and dangerous driving: implications for public safety and economic development

Traffic (mis)management and dangerous driving: implications for public safety and economic development post thumbnail image

Photo : Fundasaun Mahein

Based on years of observation, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) believes that poor traffic management and dangerous driving are serious and growing problems in Timor-Leste. Dili’s streets are increasingly congested, chaotic and dirty due to rising traffic levels and minimal adherence to road rules. This contributes to an atmosphere of lawlessness and disorder in the capital city, while endangering the lives of drivers, passengers and pedestrians, limiting the movement of people and goods, and hampering the development of important economic sectors.

The current situation is the result of various factors. For instance, street design and maintenance are often inadequate, while many drivers lack basic knowledge of the rules of the road, which together create a dangerous environment. Transit police rarely enforce traffic regulations or parking rules, meaning that drivers can violate rules with impunity, which often leads to traffic jams and accidents.  Meanwhile, the number of cars and motorcycles circulating in Timor-Leste has steadily increased due to higher levels of disposable income among a portion of the population. As a result, the streets of the capital city are increasingly dangerous for drivers and pedestrians alike. Congestion is also now a daily occurrence in busy traffic zones, which limits the movement of people and goods throughout the city.

All governments face challenges related to managing traffic flows and road safety, even in developed countries with advanced systems. FM also understands that Timorese policy makers must manage various competing priorities, and that they may not view traffic management as a particularly urgent issue. Nonetheless, by limiting the movement of people and goods, increasing accidents, pollution and stress, and contributing to the disorganised and chaotic atmosphere in the capital city, congested streets and dangerous driving are negatively impacting public wellbeing and hampering economic growth, particularly in sectors such as tourism and hospitality which depend on a well-organised, clean and safe environment.

Timor-Leste is not like Jakarta or Bali which are densely populated – rather, we have the advantages of low population density and relatively wide streets. Thus, significant improvements can be achieved by implementing the correct measures. FM therefore offers the following analysis and recommendations, which we believe can help to reduce congestion and improve road safety, while strengthening the rule of law and facilitating economic development.

Driver knowledge and implementation of road rules is limited

A review of Timor-Leste’s legal framework related to traffic and road safety conducted in 2016 concluded that “while the road traffic rules are clearly defined in the Road Code, the lack of specific legislation regarding training and licensing of drivers, and inspection of vehicles, make these safety elements of the road code inapplicable in practice” (Almeida 2016). The review recommended that specific legislation be passed to regulate driver training and vehicle inspections, registration and insurance.

Due to the lack of legal standards defining the requirements for obtaining a driving licence, many drivers in Timor-Leste have minimal formal knowledge of road rules. There are no official institutions which provide formal driving lessons; rather, most drivers are self-taught or learn from family members at a young age. Many drivers do not possess a driving licence at all, while others have acquired it by paying a bribe. At the same time, the likelihood of being caught by police driving without a licence is minimal.

The lack of knowledge – and enforcement – of road rules lead to dangerous and unhelpful driving practices which contribute to congestion and accidents. Drivers often aggressively push forward, ignoring right of way, which blocks traffic. Trucks, buses and other large vehicles frequently overtake other cars or drive in the fast lane. FM notes that Kareta Estado are often the worst offenders in terms of aggressive driving, which sets a bad example for other drivers. These practices – and the lack of police response – recall many incidences of dangerous driving by international peacekeepers in Timor-Leste which resulted in numerous accidents, while rarely resulting in consequences for the offenders.

Inadequate vehicle maintenance also contributes to poor road safety. Many vehicles operate with expired inspection certificates, while the probability of being caught is extremely low. Non-functioning brake lights, particularly on large vehicles such as trucks, can easily cause accidents, while motorcyclists commonly drive at night without headlights. Old, poorly maintained vehicles are also polluting, which harms air quality and people’s health. Unfortunately, many people simply lack the money to properly maintain their vehicles and perform essential repairs. However, inadequate monitoring of vehicle safety by the traffic police (Tránsito) – as well as the lack of specific legislation regulating vehicle inspection – means that drivers continue to operate non-roadworthy vehicles with impunity.

To their credit, Tránsito officers often direct traffic at busy junctions during specific hours, and recently appear to have increased their efforts to enforce parking rules in some busy areas. It would also be unfair to blame them for the limited formal training of drivers, lack of specific legislation, poor road and vehicle maintenance, or the increasing traffic volume which are the main factors contributing to dangerous driving and congestion in Dili. However, in general, FM sees that Tránsito are not working effectively to improve traffic flows, detect traffic violations or implement parking rules. Thus, the institution clearly requires additional resources and direction in order to effectively carry out its mission.

Road design and maintenance

A key factor which contributes to accidents and congestion is inadequate design and maintenance of many roads. In the capital city, large potholes in busy areas are often left unattended for months or years at a time, forcing drivers to swerve dangerously or drive on the wrong side to avoid them. When roadworks eventually occur, minor jobs such as patching over a pothole can take weeks to be completed. The workmanship is often of dubious quality, while workmen frequently leave rubble and equipment behind on the road. Drivers then continue to swerve to avoid “fixed” sections of road, with continued negative impacts on safety and traffic flow. Major examples of such problems include the main entrance to Dili Port and at the Ministry of Defence. Beyond the physical risks and effect on traffic, there are also serious questions about the government’s road maintenance processes, including procurement and oversight of roadworks.

In terms of road design, FM sees several major issues which contribute to poor safety and congestion. One is that there are no footbridges or underpasses, so that pedestrians must cross roads by walking through busy traffic. Drivers often ignore pedestrians attempting to cross, even at zebra crossings. Many zebra crossings are not strategically located, and pedestrians tend to cross the road wherever is most convenient for them rather than at designated crossing points.

The lack of designated right-turn lanes along the Comoro Road dual carriageway (Avenida Presidente Nicolau Lobato/Avenida Alm. Américo Tomás) also contributes to significant congestion and accidents, as vehicles block the traffic behind them while waiting to turn right, and other drivers switch lanes to avoid blocked right-hand lanes. Inadequate parking provision around important government and commercial buildings is another major factor causing congestion along key routes, such as at BNCTL in Mandarin, outside Mandiri and BNU banks in Colmera, and at UNTL/Ministry of Social Solidarity/Ministry of Interior in Caicoli.

Lack of quality public transport and regulation of existing transport

The lack of state investment in public transport has maintained dependency on the microlet and taxi system, while contributing to the rapid expansion of private vehicle ownership. The lack of regulation of taxis and microlets contributes significantly to danger and congestion on Dili streets. Taxis are frequently driven at extremely slow speeds, apparently due to drivers’ desire to save petrol, which often contributes to congestion. Yellow taxis are also frequently kept in poor condition, and are regularly driven by people other than those named on the taxi licence, which creates issues for passenger safety. Indeed, sexual harassment is commonly reported by women taking taxis alone.

For microlets, there are no designated stops, and sp they frequently pull over suddenly without signalling, or stop parallel to parked cars, blocking traffic and causing other vehicles to swerve around them. The lack of designated microlet stops also means that passengers cross roads in random places after alighting, rather than at designated zebra crossings. The fact that most microlet drivers are not paid a wage, but rather are paid a percentage of each fare they carry, incentivises risk-taking.

Finally, as microlets and angguna tend to be crowded and uncomfortable, and most city pavements are in poor condition, whoever can afford to prefers to drive – or be driven – directly to their destinations. As a result, demand for private transportation in Timor-Leste remains high, which necessitates the continued importation of new cars and motorcycles, furthering increasing congestion.

Conclusion – addressing traffic management and road safety will improve quality of life and economic development

Together, the factors described above are contributing to making the streets of Dili increasingly dangerous for pedestrians, drivers and passengers. At the same time, journeys around the city are taking much longer than before, which significantly harms productivity and limits economic growth. Congestion may also result in increased frequency of accidents as drivers drive faster to make up for lost time. Poor driving practices, congestion and unsafe streets also contribute significantly to the atmosphere of disorder and lawlessness in Dili’s streets. Not only does this harm quality of life and the rule of law in general, FM believes that it poses a major barrier for the development of economic sectors such as tourism and hospitality, which are highly dependent on a clean, safe and well-organised environment.

Therefore, FM believes that the Government must take immediate steps to address the serious and growing problems of congestion, inadequate road design and maintenance, non-existent regulations for driver licencing and vehicle control, and minimal implementation of driving and parking rules. We offer the following recommendations which we believe will improve road safety and traffic management, thereby promoting public safety, economic growth and the rule of law in the capital city and municipalities:

  1. Overhaul the driver licencing process. The current process for obtaining a driving licence is not sufficiently rigorous and is easily abused, while unlicenced drivers are rarely detected or punished. This suggests that the licencing process should be re-examined and overhauled. Potential reforms could include requiring learner drivers to take a minimum number of driving lessons before applying for their physical driving test. An official agency or company should be established to provide these lessons. Drivers must also be incentivised to follow the correct licencing procedure through rigorous police enforcement. Finally, a mechanism must be created to ensure that public officers are prevented from illegally providing driving licences in return for payment.
  2. Implement public campaigns to promote road safety and enhance public knowledge of basic road rules. The Government, particularly the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC) should implement regular public information campaigns promoting the importance of road safety, teaching fundamental road rules, and informing people about the licencing process.
  3. Develop a traffic management plan for the capital city. MTC should conduct a study to identify ways to reduce congestion and enhance road safety in the capital city. If necessary, a specific authority under MTC could be established to develop and implement the traffic management plan. It may not be feasible to focus on improving traffic across the entire capital city at once. Thus, MTC could first conduct a pilot project in which one traffic zone – for example Comoro Road dual carriageway – is chosen to become a “model road”. A comprehensive plan for improving safety and traffic flow in that zone could then be created, and, if successful, the same approach could then be applied in other zones. The plan could include: ensuring adequate parking spaces and parking monitoring; building covered pedestrian bridges or underpasses along the most busy streets; establishing a mechanism to improve road maintenance processes; fixing all pavements; updating traffic lights to new models which can be programmed to more effectively manage traffic; and improving city road design such as by adding designated right-turn lanes and traffic filter lights at busy junctions.
  4. Provide additional parking spaces while preventing parking which contributes to congestion. The Government should provide additional parking in busy zones, such as BNCTL Mandarin, Praia dos Coqueiros and Motael Church. It could consider appropriating empty lots or under-utilised spaces for additional parking spaces. At the same time, Tránsito must prevent drivers from parking in busy driving lanes, including by imposing fines. Not only will this improve congestion, it will provide the government with additional revenues.
  5. Invest in quality public transport. The Government should aim to replace microlets in Dili with modern city buses, with designated stops and professional drivers. Providing cheap, safe and comfortable public transport will reduce demand for private transport, thereby reducing congestion. The 2018 Transport Sector Master Plan envisioned designated bus lanes for 2023, among many other transport facilities and infrastructure. FM hopes that the incoming Government will revisit this plan.
  6. Strengthen regulation of taxis, microlets and other “public transportation”. People will continue to rely on the current system of taxis, microlets for the foreseeable future. A 2016 study found that while taxis are regulated under Ministerial-Decree 05/2010, microlets are not formally regulated. At the same time, it is clear that many taxis are not maintained or operated in accordance with existing regulations. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the regulation of these transportation forms, to increase safety and efficiency. Regulation should ensure passenger safety by rigorous training of drivers, enforcement of vehicle maintenance rules and ensuring that only licenced drivers may operate the vehicles.

Provide Tránsito with adequate resources. It is clear that Tránsito requires additional resources and training in order for its officers to effectively carry out their traffic control mission. Therefore, the Government should evaluate the institution’s performance to identify gaps and needs, and implement measures aimed at increasing knowledge of road rules, promoting professionalism, and incentivising officers to implement rules.

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