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Revenue or motorists’ mental health: What is the priority for Federal Road Marshals?

One in eight Nigerians is exposed to mental illness, creating a torrent of vulnerable citizens for the trap by Federal Road Marshals.

Phone addiction is evidently a health and social problem. For road users, it is even more complicated and troubling, judging by the frequent road crashes in Nigeria. In Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, the crashes are linked to the fatal slips of phone use addicts on the wheels.

Officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), it appears, reckon that the unfolding epidemic may have a lot to do with the mental health of drivers.

While there is no study establishing any prevalence of mental health challenges for road users in the city, the response pattern of the agency suggests that they are approaching the problem from that assumption. The recurring remedial steps by the Federal Road Marshals is a compulsory exposure to psychiatric tests for traffic offenders in the Federal Capital.

Motorists who have requested anonymity confide that the new official response is not without some challenges. They argue that the seemingly “problematic” mental check is wholly designed as a revenue-generating device for the federal agency as against a correctional programme for erring drivers.

Road crash in Nigeria

Data from FRSC are not reassuring. According to their records, 10,050 people die yearly in road accidents across the country. That is 27 death cases per day, which is four fatalities for every four hours on the average.

For instance, from January to November 2019, there were 8,527 road traffic crashes across the country. From these, 4,163 people died—an average of about 12 fatalities daily within that period. Additionally, 59,724 people were involved in road crashes involving 14,425 vehicles. Aside from the grim numbers of fatalities, 27,408 people sustained major injuries.

The curious thing is that in spite of the attempt to link the road carnages to the mental health of road users, official data highlight different pointers. By the official records of the FRSC, the road calamities have been steadily caused by decrepit road infrastructure, bad weather, speed violation and dangerous driving, poor vehicle maintenance, and in some cases fatigue by drivers.

The FRSC also reported that “3,000 crashes were caused by imported fake tires in a period of five years.” The official records further highlight the common incidence of unlicensed motorists. Specifically, over 60,000 motorists in Lagos state, as of May 2019, were caught driving without any requisite driving license.

Abuja and road accidents

Perhaps the cross that Lagos bears as a notorious contributor to the national road calamity index is a small matter compared to what Abuja is steadily offering. In a 2018 report, the National Bureau of Statistics, (NBS) says Abuja is one of the worst places to drive a vehicle in Nigeria.

That was a good reason for FRSC to clamp down on traffic violators. For instance, in June 2017, the agency introduced a psychological and emotional test for offenders. The policy kick-started 1, July, 2017 with a special focus on FCT drivers—especially those fiddling with their mobile devices while driving.

Officials see this habit as driven by inappropriate mental conditioning. “I have good news for those who beat traffic lights especially when you get into the FCT, if you are arrested for beating a traffic light, first of all, you will be issued a ticket, secondly your vehicle will be impounded.

“Thirdly, having paid your fine, you must go to the hospital for a psychological, emotional evaluation. If we don’t see the test results, your vehicle will remain with us,” Wobin Gwora, the FRSC FCT commander warned motorists in October 2019.

What is wrong with this policy?

One in eight citizens (fact-checked by Africa Check) is exposed to mental illness in Nigeria, a situation that validates the assessment of FRSC officials. Nonetheless, several motorists still knock the policy as preying on vulnerable citizens. Buffeted by stress-inducing conditions, from a failing system, Nigerians argue that the government is taking advantage of them for a condition created by its inability to address the underlying mentally challenging factors.

“When a motorist is sent for a psychiatric test, does the process recognise the prior mental state induced by the failures of governance? Or is it just the flash moment of checking the Google maps that matters?” queried an Abuja-based Uber driver. “Virtually all motorists in Nigeria would fail the test even without violating any traffic rule,” he concluded.

HumAngle examined the process, noticing that the psychiatric examinations failed to elicit referrals for treatment or correctional steps. No “patient” is referred for further treatment or professional counselling, neither from the corps nor the psychiatrist. Motorists who failed the tests, according to Gwora, are fined and only advised to abstain from drugs and alcohol. More than 7,000 motorists have undergone the evaluation test between 2017 and 2019 attracting an individual cost of N15,000 per test.

The charge for the psychiatric evaluation test only exposes motorists to additional costs to the stipulated charges encoded into the FRSC’s traffic offences and fines manual. It is not prominent what efforts are driven by the government to arrest increasing public mental health challenges or increase the number of registered psychiatrists which, as of today, is just 250.

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