Enforcement the road toll's only answer
Christmas is typically a time for rejoicing in family.
But there are many people in Samoa who this year experienced the opposite feeling as they had their first Christmas in the shadow of a lost loved one.
Among them those with family members who have died or been permanently injured in a needlessly spate of car crashes on the nation’s roads this year.
In the fortnight before Christmas alone at least four people were left seriously injured by car crashes, including on one day last week on which there were three separate accidents. Three different crashes occurred the week prior.
But November was the cruellest month on Samoa's roads this year.
Four people passed away on the roads that month, including a new father-of-two from Vaimoso and a 23-year-old man from Leulumoega who left his parents devastated.
Official statistics hint at a growing crisis of road safety. But as counterintuitive as it may seem they might also be suggestive that we may be inching toward a solution too.
According to Police statistics published in the Samoa Observer’s Monday edition (“Three accidents in one day”) the number of people charged with drink driving over the 2018 holiday season was 120 per cent greater than the year prior. Over the same period, the number of people arrested for careless driving also spiked by more than 60 per cent.
Alcohol is frequently being identified by Police as a contributing factor to both fatal and non-fatal accidents alike but often in conjunction with speed, recklessness and even racing.
A range of policy proposals have been floated to combat drink driving’s contribution to accidents on Samoan roads, including the Minister of Works Transport and Infrastructure, Papali’i Niko Lee Hang, who has suggested that serial offenders be jailed.
Then there is the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, who has a novel idea to combat drink driving by turning the disused Fagali’i Airport into the Police’s “traffic unit and driving range and a vehicle registration inspection site.”
But the link between a test driving range and reducing cases of drink driving is less clear than tougher policing.
Some 14 people were charged with negligent driving occasioning death in Samoa last year.
American Samoa recorded no fatalities and it is perhaps no coincidence that Police in the American territory has historically cracked down on drivers at a greater rate.
Between 2014 and 2017 there were nearly 3850 traffic citations issued by American Samoan Police.
In Samoa over the same period just over 2750 citations were issued.
But, paradoxically, the recent spike in drivers in Samoa being charged for careless and drunk driving in 2018 could be read as a positive sign. The sudden explosion of a new category of offence can be suggestive of the fact that it is being committed more frequently but also that it is being enforced more rigorously.
The recent surge in offence statistics suggest that Police are beginning to move proactively towards a strategy like that pursued successfully in American Samoa and the most proven to promote road safety: enforcing penalties upon those who drive recklessly and endanger others’ lives.
This does not erase some of the terrible crashes we have seen this year. But changes to enforcement strategy need time to take effect; the time required to alter drivers' behaviour and thinking is even longer.
And hiring enough recruits to act as a visible deterrent on the roads also demands resources and the ability to attract new recruits.
We recognise that the Commissioner faces a more difficult task recruiting new Officers than his counterparts in Pago Pago, where salaries are higher.
But in the face of these constraints Fuiavailili has made admirable improvements to the force, including his commitment to building a new Police academy next year designed to boost Police recruitment.
We cannot disagree any part of the Commissioner's warning to drive safely these holidays and to expect extra scrutiny on the roads during the Police's festive season operation - but as the statistics show also, increasingly, everyday driving.
As we move on from a year marked by anguish, every tragedy that can be prevented must be.