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Siren abuse, motorists’ disregard for signals during emergencies and way forward

By Chijioke Iremeka
10 June 2023   |   3:05 am
Everything has a purpose, but not all purposes are known and when a purpose is not known, abuse is inevitable. Some observers are of the opinion that the growing abuse of the use of siren by public figures and other individuals not licensed to use it is due to widespread ignorance of what siren is meant for.

Police Siren

The use of sirens is often abused in many respects in Nigerian society by convoys of some highly placed government officials, security personnel and Very Important Persons (VIPs) such that it impedes efforts of the Federal Roads Safety Commission (FRSC) to ensure decorum in road use and undermine the respect that should be accorded the signal or warning. More worrisome is the fact that some of those who use the device are not permitted by the law to do so and they have continued to terrorise other road users with siren. CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes on the consequences of the abuse and how to tackle it.

Everything has a purpose, but not all purposes are known and when a purpose is not known, abuse is inevitable. Some observers are of the opinion that the growing abuse of the use of siren by public figures and other individuals not licensed to use it is due to widespread ignorance of what siren is meant for.

There is no doubt that the use of sirens is meant for the good of society, especially during emergencies. However, in spite of this knowing, siren in Nigeria has become a veritable tool for harassing, intimidating and sometimes, inflicting injuries on other road users and innocent people.

This is more worrisome because the use of sirens, flashers and beacon lights on any public road is legally restricted to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Vice President; President of the Senate; Speaker of the House of Representatives; Chief Justice of Nigeria; Deputy President of the Senate; Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives; Governors and Deputy Governors of states.

Also, military, para-military agencies, police, fire service and hospital ambulances are allowed to drive on public roads using sirens for rescue operations; pursuit of criminals or anybody labeled as a security risk; to save the life of sick people or accident victims; to provide fire service; during war or period of unrest.

The National Road Traffic Regulation (Amended) 2012, Section 154 (Part XIV)(1) prohibits general public other than the above-listed situations and individuals from using siren, flasher light and beacon light with a view to preventing abuse that can cause serious consequences for innocent citizens.

Section 154 (1) reads in part: “No person other than the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Vice President; President of the Senate; Speaker of the House of Representatives; Chief Justice of Nigeria; Deputy President of the Senate; Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives; Governors and Deputy Governors of states shall drive a vehicle on any public road using sirens, flashers or beacon lights.”

Section 154 (2) says: “Any person who contravenes the provisions of sub-regulation (1) of this regulation commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of N3, 000 or to a term of seven months imprisonment or to both.”

Despite these legal provisions, the siren abuse continued unabated. The abuse is also extensively perpetrated by the uniformed services, including police, military, Immigration, Customs and Correctional Services as well as security details. To check the menace, the FRSC and the police have to look inwards.

During moments of siren abuse, impunity is on full display as security escorts blare it to intimidate other road users. They use horsewhips, belts and other items against law-abiding citizens, disrupting free human and vehicular movement by driving against the traffic.

In a move against this menace, with a view to ensuring sanity on the roads, former Governor of Lagos State, who is now Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola (SAN), in 2003 banned the use of sirens in Lagos and he strictly enforced it by not using a siren as governor. His commissioners, top government officials and bullion vans were also banned from using siren.

Then, only vehicles for health and fire emergencies were spared. The Fashola’s action engendered a civil ambience in Lagos State. Sadly, the sanity achieved during Fashola’s administration was not sustained after he exited office in 2015, showing that with the right person and political will, the menace could be curbed.

Raji Fashola

Fashola, who then spoke at the National Council on Transportation forum in Lagos, lamented the indiscriminate way public officers use siren on the roads.

He said: “From the day that I have become governor in this state and until this moment, I haven’t had course to use it and I don’t intend to use it. I detest noise, but I think that it is even worse that people elect us to manage public transport on their behalf and we choose to escape from it.

“After riding in a free car coupled with the free fuel, it is an abdication of duty. It must apply across the board. At least, at the state level, I can speak. My commissioners have very clear order; they will lose their job if they do.

“Can you imagine in one of our state capitals, one day without blaring car horn? Can we imagine how lovely that day will be? And this is possible. It is because we haven’t done the basic things, that is, train drivers appropriately, punish those who break the law. Can we set for ourselves a day in a state without blasting the horns?

“Let us get rid of all these sirens. They aren’t made here. We buy them to enrich other economy. They were made in factories outside the country. And then we use loud horn, especially the one used during emergency. Are we in a state of perpetual emergency? If those who manage the public transport policy can get away by using sirens, it will never work.

“And we expect to be safe. Those we put there to protect us cannot even detect who is who. So when they approach a checkpoint with a kidnapped victim in their boot, they just put on their siren and drive away. These are things that we must really reflect on and take very had decision about which way we want to go.”

Unfortunately, nobody or government has replicated this noble act by Fashola in other states. Today, ministers, service chiefs, heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), commissioners, police chiefs, top government officials, religious leaders and traditional rulers ply the roads with sirens bullying, harassing, intimidating and unleashing horror on innocent people.

A Lagos-based Information Technology consultant, Wale Oyewole, recently accused the Maroko Police Division of ignoring his complaint about the torture he was allegedly subjected to by some security details attached to a former top official of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS).

Oyewole said: “My experience at the Lekki Phase 1 entrance gate in the hands of FIRS official’s security details was frustrating. A white Hilux with cops abruptly pulled up alongside me. I allowed the Hilux to get in front, and then I moved behind it. Three mobile policemen jumped out of the Hilux and pointed their guns at me.

“One slapped me in the face, the other punched my head. I told them to calm down, and I came out of my car, but I was manhandled and pepper-sprayed in my face. Then, they drove off quickly. I temporarily went blind and my throat became very dry. It was some people around there that rallied around me and gave me water.

“After I became stable, I went to the Maroko Police Station to report the incident. But I was not allowed to make a statement. They told me to go and that there was nothing they could do about it.”

An eyewitness, who identified himself only as Kingsley, said: “The man was beaten up in front of his children because he didn’t give way for the convoy of the FIRS boss at the entrance of the Lekki Phase 1. They sprayed his eyes with pepper spray in the presence of his children and beat him up while their boss watched in the vehicle behind.”

Some stakeholders said the abuse of siren creates unnecessary panic among road users, leading to accidents as they struggle to give way.
Samuel Chukwunulu plunged into an open canal in a bid to pave the way for a speeding security operatives’ vehicle that was blasting sirens. He expressed regret that in spite of existing laws that regulate the use of siren, the VIPs, especially government officials, have continued to flout them with crass impunity on the roads.

“Most of the times when road users are stopped by traffic light, convoys of government officials use the siren to scare other road users in a bid to beat the traffic. Such attitude usually causes accidents. If you are not careful on the road or you are a leaner, they could push you off the highway, not minding the nature of the road’s shoulders,” he said.

A Port Harcourt-based social affairs analyst, Dr. Francis Aligidi, once lamented the use of siren by some Nigerians with impunity and called on the relevant authorities to take urgent steps to check the menace. According to him, most users of siren switch on the gadget to scare away road users in times of heavy traffic to gain easy passage. Sometimes, they still blare their siren even when the road is free, causing environmental nuisance.

A security analyst, Titus Ogbo noted: “The security operatives are the major culprits. In some of the vehicles where siren is blared, you will be surprised to see only the driver who may appear to be security personnel.

“People get very upset when these categories of people use siren to scare them off, especially during heavy traffic jams.”

In Uyo, the Akwa-Ibom State capital, it was learnt that a brother to the governor drives around with siren.
A motorist, Vincent Amalu, condemned the abuse of siren in the area, and called on government to check it.

“You will see a driver in a security vehicle using siren even when there is nothing at stake. Siren should be used only by those permitted by law, and not all manners of people. The practice has made the roads unsafe for other motorists.

“They use siren to intimidate other road users and cause accidents, even during their unofficial movements. For instance, last year, one of our members drove his cab into a ditch along Okpanam road and got injured when a government vehicle blared its sirens and drove past him in high speed. Many cars and tricycle operators scampered for safety to give way for these Toyota Hilux van drivers who intimidate us with their sirens.”

The Guardian learnt that Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, citing the discomfort arising from the menace of the siren abuse, banned politicians, ministers and judges from using the device, saying “We are removing the rule which allows state and government to specify, who can use the red lights.”

The then Indian Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, said: “From 1 May (2017), no vehicle will have a red light. There will be no exceptions.” India’s Supreme Court had earlier described the ever-present red lights on car roofs as a ‘menace to the society,’ adding that they had become “a fashion and status symbol.” It banned them and asked the executive to take punitive actions against offenders.

Why motorists ignore sirens blare
The Guardian learnt that as a result of these abuses, siren sound has become common on Nigeria’s roads such that motorists no longer respect the sound to give way for the vehicles blasting it, even when there is a genuine and life-threatening emergency.

Unfortunately, motorists now struggle for space with ambulances carrying sick people, especially those patients requiring urgent attention, who are referral cases. This has made some ambulance drivers to use microphones to talk to motorists. It is now common to hear them say, ‘Give way, give way, don’t let me die, don’t let me die!’

It’s at this point that many motorists would feel that there is a genuine reason for such siren blasting. Even there are cases of ambulances moving with siren even when there is no patient in the vehicle.

The Guardian learnt that it’s a crime punishable under the National Road Traffic Regulation (Amended) 2012, Section 155 (Part XIV) titled, ‘Obstruction of vehicles using sirens, flashers and beacon light’ to obstruct a vehicle authorised by this regulation to use sirens, flashers or beacon light.

Section 155 (1) says: “A driver or person having control of a vehicle who knowingly and without reasonable excuse obstructs a vehicle authorised by this regulation to use sirens, flashers or beacon light commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of N2, 000 or six months imprisonment or to both.”

Reacting to the claim that many ambulance drivers move around blasting siren even when there is no need for it, John Bassey, who drives a private ambulance belonging to the Golden Cross Hospital, FESTAC, said: “People are meant to conclude like that because they are not in the picture. While
I will not rule out the fact that some ambulance drivers do that, I would say that the claim is not all round true.

“Ambulances are stationed at a location where they are needed, and sometimes where they are not needed but they can easily access the road for swift movement. Sometimes, I will be in FESTAC and there will be an emergency in another place like Mile 2 or Isolo, where there is no ambulance. If I was contacted and I needed to go there to lift a patient immediately and I met traffic on the way, should I not blast siren to make other motorists to pave the way for me to get to the destination to save the life of the patient or I should stay silent in the traffic? The answer is no.

“In time of emergency, every minute is like an hour to the people and 20 minutes is long enough to lose any patient. That’s why you would see some empty ambulances racing and blasting siren, it is usualy to get to the destination of the patient in good time to save life. What we ask of the motorists is to always give us the way when they hear siren from ambulances. We are dealing with life. It could be any of us or our relatives.”

A police van driver, who said he did not have the authority to speak for the police and so pleaded anonymity noted that the public sometimes lack understanding of what is happening.

“Policemen move by instruction or order of intelligence. We may be plying the road empty and the public sees that we are not carrying anybody, but we are going to mobilise or reinforce to arrest a security threat. On why we take one way or drive against traffic, if we have intelligence that there is traffic robbery, it’s just normal for us not to enter the traffic to arrest the robbers. Our best bet is to take one way to find ourselves in front where the crime is being perpetrated so that we can arrest the situation,” the source said.

Recently, the Corps Marshal, Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), Dr. Boboye Oyeyemi, said the agency was out to prosecute abusers of sirens across the federation.

Oyeyemi, in a statement by Bisi Kazeem, the Corps Public Education Officer, made the disclosure in Abuja, saying that the commission would work with the police to ensure that offenders are prosecuted accordingly and the act is reduced to the barest minimum.

According to him, most abusers of sirens are not government officials, but private individuals who are unauthorised to use convoys in the country.
“We have seen a lot of people abusing the use of convoys and we have taken it up to the appropriate authority; this year, we would take more drastic action.

“Abuse of convoys and sirens are an abuse of freedom of movement and intimidation of road users and other citizens across the country. This act must stop,’’ he said.

Oyeyemi described the act as clearly against the regulation of entitlement to escort. He vowed that those found guilty would be brought to book, with their vehicles impounded and the drivers prosecuted according to the law.

Some observers are of the view that the National Road Traffic Regulation (Amended) 2012 is not a suitable legislation. To them, the punishment of N3, 000 fine prescribed for illegal use of sirens is too mild and no longer in tandem with the reality. They called for review of the law.