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Re-emergence of traffic lights in Sierra Leone: perceptions versus actuality

May 20, 2016 By Joseph S. Margai

Decades after they suddenly disappeared in Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, streetlights have reappeared, with two sets installed at Bus Halt in Brookfield and Congo Cross, both in the relatively affluent west end of the city.

A good many Sierra Leoneans perceived the traffic lights as decoration or part of the beautification of the municipality, while some say they have been re-introduced to get rid of traffic police officers from the street.

Although the lights are not fully operational yet, they have many admirers, who probably are seeing them in real life for the first time.

“It was like a dream when I woke up one morning and found a set of lights with three colours,” said Mabinty Turay, a business woman who sells at the Bus Halt, where one of the traffic lights have been installed, although only the amber coloured light constantly blinks to motorists.

“What kind of light is this? I asked anxiously but all of my colleague traders could not tell because for most of us it is our first time to see it. One of my friends immediately came up and suggests that it was installed there by the government in order to beautify or decorate the streets in Freetown,” explains Ms Turay.

A commuter at the Bus Halt, who was waiting to get a public transport to the west end of Freetown, was asked about the new lights and replied: “these are traffic lights, they were placed here in order to inform drivers when to go, stop, and park”.

Ms Turay, who was probably pleased with the commuter’s explanation, enquired further, “I immediately asked the passenger again, what will now be the role of the traffic police and traffic warden corps? He replied ‘aren’t you the ones accusing traffic police officers of extorting money from drivers. Our government is a listening one, it has taken prompt action.”

When I went back home that day, Mabinty recalled, I told my neighbours that the government has taken action of removing traffic police officers from the street and replaced them with traffic lights. Their response was very good. They said the lights will prevent police officers from harassing drivers for alleged traffic offenses.”

A passenger in a taxi this reporter travelled on while en route to a media event at the Bintumani Hotel held the view that the traffic lights were re-introduced in order to get rid of traffic police officers and traffic warden corps from the streets. He later identified himself as Abdel Kombo; he is in his mid-20s.

This move by the government to install traffic lights, he noted, was to confirm the views of many Sierra Leoneans that traffic police personnel are corrupt and that they extort money from drivers for offenses that are not worth a penny!

“I am very happy to see that the government has taken swift action of re-introduce the traffic lights,” said a jubilant taxi driver, Mohamed Jah. “I believe these traffic lights can now replace traffic police officers on the streets,” he added.

Explaining the reason for his apparent distrust of traffic police officers, Jah said his worst experience with traffic police officers came when he was arrested for stopping and offloading a passenger on Campbell Street. The traffic Police, he recalled, walked up to me and requested for my driving license and I gave it to him.

He disclosed that the officer then ordered him to offload all the passengers and ordered that he follow him to the Adelaide Street Police Station. “For what sir? I asked. His reply was for three traffic offenses: parking at a prohibited space, obstructing traffic and failing to produce your driver’s license on demand by the Police,” he narrated.

“I replied, ‘You have my driver’s license with you and you are claiming that I have refused to produce it. I even stopped at a junction where passengers wait for taxis and this is not a prohibited place sir,” he further explained. He said despite several pleas the traffic police officer refused to listen and took me to the police station where I was charged to court for the above traffic offenses.

Asked about his perception about traffic police officers, he said “they are corrupt, dishonest, liars and even cheaters.”

Although some citizens have expressed their misgiving about the traffic lights, many others who spoke to this press were jubilant, albeit they perceive that the re-emergence of traffic lights will mean the removal of traffic police from the streets. They also called on the government to educate drivers on the use of the traffic lights.

Osman Bangura, a taxi driver, said drivers should be properly educated on the use of the traffic lights because most of them cannot tell the meaning of each of the colours of the lights.

“I was told that previously there were traffic lights in the country but most of us were not fortunate to see them at work. Now that the government has decided to reintroduce them, we should be educated on how we should use them,” he said. He added that most motorists would think that amber colour is yellow, which is not, and that they should be thoroughly.

Another driver, Sheku Sesay, said education on the use of the traffic lights should also be taken to schools so that students could learn about them.

“They too are road users and in fact potential drivers. If they are not thoroughly educated in the classroom on the use of the traffic light, they will be vulnerable to road traffic crashes,” he said.

However, the Acting Director of Traffic Management and Road Safety, Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP) Patrick Johnson, said no country in the world takes traffic police officers off the street because of the installation of traffic lights. “The traffic Police personnel are needed there [on the streets] to enforce the law on violators. In fact, the installation of the traffic lights is a pilot phase,” he added.

“The traffic lights will only minimise the task on the traffic police. The Police will be there to observe and punish traffic violators. There will also be traffic patrol motor bikes so as to help monitor the way the drivers will be using the traffic lights,” he stated.

He recalled, however, that traffic lights in Sierra Leone are not strange because they were in use when the country hosted heads of state of the Organisation of African Union [now African Union] conference in 1980. He noted that a destination called ‘To the Light’ in Freetown was named after the traffic light that was installed at Brookfield.

Asked if the public will be educated on the use of the traffic lights, his reply was that stakeholders in the transport sector – the Police, Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority, Sierra Leone Roads Authority, Motor Drivers Union, Commercial Motor Bike Riders Union, etc – will soon start to educate the public on the use of the traffic lights.

He disclosed that the traffic lights would be powered by electricity from the national grid, supplied by the Ministry of Energy or alternative power source if the power grid is faulty.

Meanwhile, President of the Motor Drivers Union, Alpha Amadu Bah, said the police have twice organised training for his members on the usage of the lights. He added that the executive in turn would have to train other members on how to use the traffic lights.

“The traffic lights are very important because they will reduce accidents. They will also reduce the presence of many law enforcers [traffic police and traffic wardens] on the streets. We want to thank the president for this initiative,” he stated.

Perceptions aside, reality is that the re-emergence of traffic lights in Sierra Leone will not lead to the removal of traffic police and traffic warden corps from the streets. In fact, this is the time that police presence will be more evident on streets in order to ensure that the law punishes traffic offenders, according to Acting Director of Traffic Management and Road Safety, Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP) Patrick Johnson.