The rapid retraction today by the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) of its interpretation of the recently effected amended Road Traffic Act will be accompanied by a cyclone-type sigh of relief by motorists.
And coming after Minister of Transport and Works Michael Lashley was forced to issue a clarification, it leaves us to wonder whether the fudge and ambiguity surrounding the legislation could not have been avoided.
Asked yesterday during a news conference about the use of cellular phones while driving, Acting Assistant Superintendent Ronald Stanford, the head of the traffic division, gave what the RBPF today said was “an erroneous interpretation of the law”, but which he clearly believed at the time was the correct interpretation.
Mr Stanford told journalists there was still too much confusion about the measure, and explained that motorists could still be charged for using their mobile phones, even if they pull aside and remain sitting in their vehicles.
He added that the law was clear that motorists were only allowed to use the mobile phone if they exit the vehicle, or if they use a hands-free wireless device within the vehicle.
“There have been a lot of queries about pulling off to the side of the road and using your cell phone. The law is pretty strict about that also because it says you are still actually driving as long as you are in control of the vehicle and the levers that cause movement of that vehicle. So the only way you are going to use your cell phone is if you are going to actually get out of the vehicle. But if you stay behind the wheel, technically speaking you are still driving,” Mr Stanford said.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that instead of clarifying things the senior police officer succeeded in muddy the waters even further. And let’s not forget he is the head of the traffic division, therefore, if anyone should know these things, it is Mr Stanford.
All along, even before the Act was amended, we were being advised by the police that the safe thing to do was to pull aside if we had to use our mobile phones. Suddenly, it would appear, what we were being advised all along was to engage in a practice that would become illegal once the law became effective.
This certainly was not the intent of the RBPF, which remains a respected institution here, and is not seen by most as obtuse or remote from those it serves.
Thankfully, the Force made a hasty retraction today, explaining that their most senior traffic officer got it wrong.
“A driver does not have to exit the vehicle to use a hand held device. The driver is permitted to draw up the vehicle in a safe manner on a road or highway, and make use of the device without infringing upon the Road Traffic Act,” the RBPF said in a statement.
It came after Mr Lashley had held a news conference to issue his own clarification.
“The intent of the legislation is to prevent people from using the cell phone whilst driving . . . and we believe that if someone driving a vehicle receives a call from your cell phone and decides to pull off the road, thereby observing all precautions and of course adhering to all safety precautions, that that person is within the spirit of the law,” the minister said.
“It is not the intent of the legislation is to penalize that person. The intent of the legislation is to deal with that driver who is on the highway or the roadway and using their cell phone,” he stressed, while adding that his ministry would continue to work with all stakeholders, including the police, to ensure they were on the same page regarding the law.
This embarrassing situation suggests a lack of care and absence of preparation on the part of lawmen, who had a responsibility to ensure they understood the legislation before they could enforce it.
However, it also speaks to a dereliction of duty on the part of the initiators and framers. It was Mr Lashley’s responsibility to ensure that everyone, including the police, understood both the spirit and intent of the law.
The Barbados Road Safety Association had called for an educational programme, which the Ministry of Transport and Works ignored.
Instead, it virtually sneaked into effect the law, and left it to the police – and the motoring public – to figure out this Kafkaesque bureaucracy, while making lawmen appear like bumbling incompetents.
Had the question not been asked by the journalist, how many drivers would have been reported – not pulled over since they would already have done that – and dragged to court for doing the right thing?
Frighteningly, how many more laws are there that our lawmen don’t understand?
We’ve been told again and again that ignorance of the law is no excuse. We might be forgiven if the ordinary man and woman does not understand it, but when the very people who are charged with upholding the law are ignorant of it, heaven help us all!