By Themba Mkhize
Driving in Jamaica feels like a module in perseverance training.
On one hand, there is the human element to contend with. Drivers will recklessly steal up the wrong side of the road. Or race down soft shoulders. Taxi men will sell nine lives to arrive a few minutes faster. Bikers try to launch flights from any available front bumper, and pedestrians can spawn in the middle of the road, guided by faith and not sight.
But nothing takes you off guard quite like a BIG pothole.
Despite our best calculations, potholes are inescapable. Some even span the width of the road. If you ignore them, they keep growing. If you fix them, they come back. Their promise is to always dip their hands into our pockets again and again.
Bad roads increase the potential and severity of accidents. Drivers often drift into lanes with oncoming traffic to avoid potholes, counting on their manoeuvring skills and the other driver to make adjustments. Other potholes form in unassuming locations, appearing without warning and causing drivers to break suddenly or swerve. In both cases, innocent motorists and pedestrians become vulnerable, especially if speeding is involved. When accidents do occur, the cost is accounted for in cash, in hiked insurance premiums, and too often, in lives.
Even when there is no accident, bad roads accelerate the wear and tear on our vehicles. Wheels become imbalanced and misaligned, which in turn reduces fuel efficiency and sends us to the gas pump more frequently. Imbalanced and misaligned wheels also make vehicles less responsive to steering, as well as necessitating repairs and replacement of tyres, rims, suspensions, bearings, shock absorbers, steering parts, and overworking the engine. This is separate from the actual unsavoury and potentially dangerous experiences of having a tyre blow out while driving or having an axle break in a pothole. We pay these costs too.
Businesses that operate fleets will have to find money for repairs more frequently as well, which may mean diverting funds from other aspects of the business or accounting for these demands in pricing. In the end, who foots this bill? We, the customers, do.
Eventually, the government will have to fund repairs, and again, we foot that bill.
Then there is the very real opportunity cost for citizens. The high road repair bill and perceived low value for money means that alternative pursuits – education, health, public sector compensation, training, infrastructure development, etc. – have to continuously contend with short terms capital demands for necessary road repairs.
This is the conundrum of economics in developing countries. Our resource constraints give us all the more reason to wring every last drop of value we can from public investments, but resources are often used unconvincingly, if not inefficiently.
I have heard the theory that road repair contracts have been a tool of successive governments to repay favours to campaign supporters. What this implies is that the need for constant repairs is by design. I have not become as cynical as to advance this argument, nor have I seen evidence to advance this argument, but it is clear that theories like these are born from a shared contempt for government corruption and so will enjoy some popularity. That is, especially when citizens have witnessed the routine handover of large sums for repairs without the consistent enjoyment of good roads.
That lack of perceived long term value compounds the frustration of repeatedly paying for bad roads in one form or another.
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