Fair Cop

On Tuesday this week, Police Commissioner Albert Nalpini responded to a request from the Daily Post for answers concerning his force’s failure to secure the scene of a fatal road wreck.

In a press conference, he gave a frank appraisal of road safety incidents in the Port Vila area since the beginning of the year, and then fronted up to the question on everyone’s mind: Where were the police?

Mr Nalpini issued a full and frank apology. Speaking on behalf of the Vanuatu Police Force, he said, “anything that reflects any inaction or delay… on our part, to apologise for that and outline the way forward.”

He went on to condemn the failure to secure the crash scene, where the driver of bus was savagely beaten by onlookers after the crash. Mr Nalpini told the assembled media that he had forwarded the allegations to the Professional Standards Unit. “Any VPF officer(s) implicated… will face the full consequences of their failure”.

He added that police are not able to provide first aid, and appealed to the public to call Promedical and ProRescue if rescue or first aid services are required. ProMedical can be reached via the 115 short code on any phone, whether it has credit or not.

The police have a great deal to answer for, and over the years, many have despaired of ever seeing change. The current Commissioner is at least willing to try. At this week’s press conference, he outlined a number of concrete steps he intended to take in order to improve his force’s track record.

Perhaps the most noticeable measure will be his decision to establish foot patrols in certain parts of town, and to equip officers with the mandate to issue tickets for traffic violations. The Municipal police, he said, will be patrolling as well.

He also announced that joint Municipal/Police operations would be conducted with the cooperation of the Land Transport Authority and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities, which is responsible for vehicle roadworthiness.

Roadside spot checks have already begun, he said, and during last weekend’s operations, he reported that authorities confiscated 33 vehicles. Reasons for detention included the failure to produce a valid driver’s license, driving under the influence of alcohol, and failure to produce valid vehicle registration and insurance documents.

He called on the public to do its part and promote responsible vehicle operation. He mentioned that his department spends more time and effort in conducting road safety awareness than any other area.

These efforts have had little effect. The capital area’s roads are significantly less safe than in the developed world. In the USA, for example, people spend more time in their cars than just about anywhere else in the world. Yet less than 0.8% of car crashes involve fatalities. So far in 2018 alone, 8% of crashes attended by police involved one or more fatalities.

The World Health Organisation lists a number of factors that affect road safety. Many of them will be familiar to drivers: Drink driving, speed, and distracted driving are major factors in road deaths. Drinking and speeding contribute to about a third each. Distracted driving contributes in about 16% of cases.

All of these are the driver’s responsibility. Environmental conditions can also affect road safety. The WHO lists road infrastructure conditions as a significant contributor, and bad weather conditions also contribute, although this is much more pronounced in countries that receive regular snowfalls.

Perhaps the only consolation capital residents can take is that timely response from trained medical professionals is also a significant factor in fatality numbers. It’s impossible to say how many lives have been saved due to timely response from ProMedical and Prorescue, but we know it happens often.

During last Thursday’s incident, the entire bus had to be moved in order to extract one passenger whose legs were pinned inside the crushed vehicle. Without specific expert training, it might not have been possible to safely extract the person, who had broken both legs.

The Commissioner outlined his efforts to be more effective in the face of chronic under-funding, low morale and professional standards, and a significant staffing shortage created by the redundancy of dozens of senior officers last year.

As a bridging measure, he issued an ‘all hands’ call to handle road safety. In response to a question about how he proposed to cope with staffing limitations, he told the Daily Post that he was pulling in officers from other sections to assist. This includes members of the Maritime Wing and other divisions who had never before been involved in road incident response.

He also indicated that he was working to make periodic road blocks less predictable. Rather than operating only in the evening hours, he said that they would be more random in their start and finish times.

Asked by the Daily Post about vehicle patrols on Efate roads, he said they were not possible due to resource constraints.

Prevention was also a high priority for the Commissioner. He said he is seeking to enlist the cooperation of insurers locally, in order to improve the quality and safety of the vehicles running on Port Vila’s roads. One telling statistic related during the press conference: Older Hyundai buses account for an unreasonably large proportion of collisions. If brokers were less willing to insure unsafe vehicles, road safety stats might improve, he suggested.

Asked about dangerous crowd behaviour at crash sites, he pled numbers. “If there are 100 people at the scene and only two officers, what can we do?” Unruly crowd behaviour has endangered lives and made first responders’ jobs immeasurably more difficult.

This may be the first time a Police Commissioner has responded to public criticism with a clear and detailed plan. It remains to be seen whether the rank and file within the force are on board with it, and whether the political will exists to give Mr Nalpini the resources he needs to make our roads safer.

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