Sunday, July 24, 2011

Talbot's top ten tips for building the most dangerous roads in the world...

Years of travel in Asia, Africa and various parts of the world have helped me gain an insight into the minds of the people who build roads there. At first I was appalled by the traffic carnage, but very quickly, I learned to love the thrill a minute chaos that keeps you appreciating a life lived on the edge.

Lately though, I've seen another perspective.  If you wanted to build a road system to throttle commerce and increase fatalities, there are some well established design principles to help you do so.

  1. Change the meaning of VCP's from Vehicle Check Points into Vehicle Cash Points.  It's simple really. Just pay your police so little that they need to take bribes to feed their family. It makes it much cheaper for road users to pay off a police officer than say, fix a bald tyre, get a drivers license or repair a broken headlight.
  2. Don't do any road maintenance. Let's face it, that's just dead money that could be used to send your kids to university in the US - after you siphon it of by awarding a maintenance contract to your brother-in-laws road construction company (you know, the one that doesn't own any road construction machinery or have any employees). Don't forget to do some roadworks in the weeks leading up to the next election but other than that, best to let those potholes grow and the road surface wash away until at least three vehicles have had fatal accidents on that bend.  Fixing these 'death zones' will win you votes and for sure, there's no cheaper way to do targeted maintenance. 
  3. Get your roads built by foreign aid. When the donor country awards the project to one of their own major corporations, who then come in and build it by awarding it to the lowest bidder, the road will deteriorate within a couple of years and you'll get to ask for more aid to rebuild it all over again. Just think of the employment that will create.
  4. Remember to build roads that suit vehicles that you don't have many of. For example, if most of your people travel by bicycle, be sure to build major highways that are barely wide enough for two trucks to pass and never, ever, put in cycle paths or extra space that might allow a bicycle to travel with some relative safely by day, much less at night.
  5. Encourage a culture of risk taking. Be sure to build major highways with blind corners, minor roads entering from behind bushes. Be sure to never fine drivers who break the law (don't forget though to put in place some relevant legislation so that you meet the requirements of aid donors and the World Bank loans officers). The police will in any case, provide some percentage of errant drivers with an on the spot fine, but it will be self-limiting because a) they will stop when they have enough money to buy lunch and b) you haven't given them any speed cameras or vehicles to actually enforce the law.
  6. Don't whatever you do, regulate signage beside the road. It's best if drivers are regularly distracted by oversize garish advertising signs. Better yet if those signs obscure their vision when pulling out into traffic. It teaches them to be more vigilant in life anyway.  The only exception to this rule...  you should make road safety signs as small as possible and preferably use cheap paint so that they fade quickly.
  7. Make sure there are plenty of unemployed youth to become touts and roadside sellers. While they are weaving through traffic or jogging beside a moving bus, trying to sell oranges to the passengers, at least they are getting good cardio exercise and are too busy to be out robbing your house. Those few who slip under the wheels will be quickly replaced and let's face it, they didn't have a real job anyway.
  8. Do your best to mingle pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles, animals, hand-carts, tuk-tuks, cars and heavy trucks - preferably in multiple directions.  Everyone will love you for providing them with complete freedom of movement and to be honest, dodging traffic helps to keep the populace fit.
  9. Driver testing - don't do it.  Consult with a few friends to design a system that allows people to bribe officials to be issued a drivers license without sitting a test. Let's face it your roads are so congested by now that it would take four hours to do a 5 mile driving test anyway.
  10. Last but not least, you'll need bureaucracy.  Keep the paperwork for registration, insurance and drivers licenses so complex that it takes forever to become compliant. And when most people are in compliance, introduce new measures such as fire safety inspections for vehicles (at the very least, it will help fund your already bankrupt fire brigade - particularly when they get to pull up vehicles and levy their own 'on the spot fines'). Be creative - after all, it could be your job that is saved by needing huge public service organizations. Best example I've seen yet for creative bureaucracy was getting a drivers license when I had to go to three different locations on three opposite corners of a congested city to get a) a police clearance, b) a license application form, c) eyesight test and then head back to a) for the driving test, then return to b) to have the license issued. Lucky for me the ever helpful public servants at a) and b) accepted cash so I didn't have to go past point b) to have my license issued on the spot. Counting the time taken to drive from the office to their offices and back, this business model of relative efficiency took a mere four hours to negotiate the gridlocked city.

Hopefully these tips will help you, gentle reader, in the event that you should ever become the ruler of a small (or large) near bankrupt nation where over-population is a significant problem.

On a serious note... Sadly, I find all of the above and more systemic issues in way too many places. Sometimes it really does seem as if the nations leaders set out from scratch to create the most dangerous road system in the world. OK, I know it's not easy running a country and I can safely say that I haven't had to try it. It's still a sobering exercise to think about the root causes of the millions of deaths annually on the worlds roads.

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