Eight years after the tragic Beetham Highway accident that claimed the lives of a mother and two young daughters, survivor Abigail Assing cringes every time the tyres of a vehicle screech on asphalt, as she relives the horrific event that has left her mentally and physically scarred.
On February 24, 2013, Assing was one of three pedestrians–her neighbours Ryan Rampersad and Amanda Lalla included–who was critically injured but survived the fatal crash.
Unfortunately, Assing’s best friend Haydee Paul, 29 and her two daughters Shakira, 7 and Akasha, 8, were run over by a car driven by an off-duty police officer. Shakira and Akasha were Assing’s god-daughters.
The deaths sparked fiery protests by Sea Lots residents, as they accused the police of covering up particular details of the accident. Residents also blocked the highway, forcing motorists to take alternative routes as police had to be called out.
In their cries for justice, the protesters also demanded a walkover to facilitate the safe crossing of the bustling Beetham Highway.
In 2018, five years later, a $10.4 million walkover was ready for their use and safety, but up to this day it seems this piece of infrastructure is underutilised, seemingly a monument to many.
The Beetham Highway walkover is one of 25 built overhead of three of the country’s highways and main roads to reduce road fatalities. The walkovers come at a total cost of $250 million. But clearly, people are avoiding them and are still taking their chances to navigate the dangerously bustling highway. They do this daily to make their way to the Sea Lots community and nearby environs or to cross over to the Port-of-Spain Central Market on the opposite side.
Ironically, not even Assing’s near-death experience has convinced her to use the community’s walkover.
“I would not lie to you, it have times I would not use it. It have times my back and legs pained me so much since the accident.”
Climbing the walkover’s steep ramp, Assing said, is a task.
“It have ageable people who really can’t walk that walkover. They will take their chances and cross the road.”
Many have lost their lives by taking the risk of navigating the highway traffic.
30 per cent of fatal highway accidents occur close to a walkover
T&T Police Service’s Road Safety Coordinator Brent Batson told Guardian Media recently at his San Juan office that close to 30 per cent of fatal highway accidents have taken place mere metres from a walkover.
Last year 37 per cent of pedestrian deaths occurred on the highways, while 54 per cent took place on the main road. The Priority Bus Route accounted for nine per cent.
The majority of the deaths occurred on the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, followed by the Solomon Hochoy Highway, Uriah Butler Highway and Beetham Highway.
In the last seven months, there were 21 pedestrian deaths compared to 15 people who were run over by a vehicle for the same period last year while crossing the road.
“Twenty-one persons were killed attempting to cross the road compared to 15 in 2020 for the same period last year. We are really alarmed at that trend when it comes to persons being killed crossing the roads,” Batson said.
A total of 28 pedestrians were struck and killed in 2020.
In 2020, males accounted for 78 per cent of pedestrian deaths. The average age of these victims were 50. The average age of the 22 per cent of females killed was 45.
Statistics found that men take greater risks on the roads than women.
A total of 180 pedestrians were killed in the five years from 2016 to 2020.
The road fatality statistic over the last decade was 1,567.
But these deaths still have not deterred many people as they continue to ignore road safety advice at their own peril.
Assing exited the Central Market on that fateful day
Recounting that fateful day, Assing said she had just exited the Central Market and stepped onto the pavement on the westbound lane of the highway with Paul and her daughters to go to their Sea Lots home.
Carrying a knapsack of fresh produce on her back, Assing said she was hustling to go home to cook, as she wanted to go to the beach to lime.
Metres away were Assing’s neighbours Rampersad and Lalla.
“As we crossed the road, the last thing I heard was a screech. The sound of a tyre. By the time I turn around a car slammed into us. I didn’t even know what colour the car was until I looked up and saw it down by the corner,” 39-year-old Assing said.
The car, Assing said, came out of nowhere.
“And that was it.”
Assing said as she got off the ground covered in blood, her eyes searched for Paul and her daughters.
“I had no idea where they were. I called out to them but got no answer.”
Several feet away, she saw Rampersad and Lalla who could have barely moved.
With the help of curious onlookers and paramedics, Assing was placed in an ambulance and rushed to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital.
“It was only when the ambulance drove off a good distance I saw Haydee and the two girls lying on the road. I started to cry asking why they were not being attended to…and that’s when my sister broke the sad news that Haydee and her daughters were gone.”
Assing said she never expected this outcome.
“I screamed, I bawled, I cried, I pounded my fists, asking why?”
Having sustained a broken left hip and middle finger and injuries to her abdominal wall and small and large intestines, Assing was hospitalised for eight days.
A living nightmare
She also underwent major surgery to repair her abdominal wall.
However, 40 days after the accident, Assing said her sister’s body was found at St Peter’s Bay in Carenage.
“My sister’s stomach was gutted by someone. She was killed. To this day her murder remains unsolved. So, it was one tragedy after the other I had to endure.”
Assing said she still cannot erase the accident from her mind.
Every time she mounts a pavement fear would grip her body.
“It does still be hard going out outside. It have times I would be walking out the road normal and the minute I hear a tyre screech I looking to run back home or run for cover.”
Assing who lived alone said her god-daughters brought love and happiness to her life.
She said when someone loses their life on the road, the deaths of Paul and her children come back to haunt her.
“It is very tragic. Every time I think about how these little girls died on that highway it leaves me in a state,” she said, her voice cracking as she spoke.
“It’s mental anguish. I don’t know if I could ever overcome this.”
Employed with the Unemployment Relief Programme, Assing said she could not attend work for six months and had to undergo therapy to walk again.
“While I am lucky to be alive my life will never be the same because that fatal accident keeps replaying in mind. When I look at the long scars on my leg and stomach it keeps reminding me of that tragic day. It’s hard to forget. It’s like a living nightmare.”
Assing said life for the two other survivors also changed.
Rampersad became paralysed and Lalla has been unable to work due to the impact.
The driver, however, was charged for causing the deaths.
The case is still pending.
An unnecessary risk
Batson strongly believes that avoiding the walkover and using the highway instead to cross over is a risk that is not worth it.
“You should know from just looking at it. The risk involved in taking that chance is not worth it. What is even more heartbreaking is when you see it (pedestrian deaths), it happens close to a walkover or a crossing infrastructure. That is a totally unnecessary risk.
“It seems to be a tough challenge where addressing an element of risk is linked to a culture of convenience and laziness in some parts because it is too much effort to walk 100 metres to the next crossing of the highway,” Batson said.
Only last month four-year-old Kevin Thompson was killed while attempting to cross the Beetham Highway with his mother and siblings who were also severely injured.
Why take the gamble?
But why would pedestrians gamble with their lives by taking a dangerous dart across the highway?
For several hours last week, Guardian Media observed dozens of pedestrians sprinting across the Beetham Highway and Western Main Road in Westmoorings within close proximity of walkovers.
Equally disturbing were the responses given by these pedestrians for their supposed reckless moves.
While many admitted their actions were wrong, they felt it was easier to cross the highway than walk across the walkovers which spanned between 36 to 40 metres long.
Others confessed they were scared of heights or their legs would pain when climbing the ramp.
It took this reporter under three minutes to walk from one end of the Beetham Highway walkover to the next.
Batson said pedestrian risk was the most challenging aspect of road safety management for the police.
A June 2021 World Health Organisation report on Road Traffic Injuries revealed approximately 1.3 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes.
That accounts for 3,600 road deaths daily.
Those losses take a huge toll on families and communities.
Road traffic death is the eighth leading cause of death for people of all ages.
While motorists, cyclists and bicyclists can be fined for breaches of the law under the Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act, Batson said pedestrians fall outside the remit of law enforcement.
Pedestrians are not ticketed for high-risk behaviour.
“Whereas enforcement can target drivers we don’t give fixed penalty notices or traffic tickets to pedestrians for consequences of high-risk behaviour. So, our ability to curb that sort of negative behaviour is limited through persuasion and education not through enforcement really,” Batson said.
Batson said that while countries such as the USA and Australia allow enforcement officers to issue citations to pedestrians who engage in unsafe crossing, jaywalking is not in our law books.
Questioned if traffic laws should be amended so pedestrians can be sanctioned by law enforcement officers, Batson felt such people who put the lives of others at risk should not go unpunished.
“I think we can look at legislation like reckless endangerment where the pedestrian actually puts the driver’s life in danger or even themselves…something that points directly to their recklessness and to hold them to account for and would give us a clear arrest power to deal with it.”
If a pedestrian is caught crossing a highway, Batson said the most the police can do is make them go back in the direction they came.
“We stop all the traffic and make them go back and they would stand up there and it becomes a waiting game…let me see how long the police will wait here to see if I will cross. You drive off and when you look in the rear-view mirror they run across the highway.”
If an officer gives directions for traffic to proceed and a pedestrian tries to cross the roadway, Batson said, the officer can arrest the person for failing to comply with instructions.
Chance of survival slim
Batson said most of the pedestrians struck on a highway are coded as wrong, while the driver is absolved from being charged because the pedestrian should not have crossed a highway where motorists are travelling at speeds between 80 and 100 Kmph.
On the main road, the maximum speed is 50 Kmph which puts the driver at a higher likelihood of prosecution if someone is knocked down.
When someone comes into the path of an SUV or 4×4 vehicle travelling at such speeds, Batson said they seldom come out alive.
If they survive, he said, they would end up paralysed or disabled.
While the families of victims are left to grieve, Batson said the drivers have to live with this terrible ordeal.
“No one speaks about the trauma to the driver. I am talking about the drivers on the highway, in their mind, are not expecting a pedestrian to run across in the night and a body comes straight through the windscreen and is next to them in the passenger seat. This is what we see. You show up and you are hearing screaming…you are thinking that the person is seriously injured but no. They are screaming because there is a dead body next to them in the passenger seat and it’s a pedestrian and it just happened so fast. That is a major trauma. Some of them don’t even drive again.”
Batson said it was unfair for the Government to provide multi-million-dollar walkovers to eliminate deaths and pedestrians disregard its use.
He recalled a few years ago when the State installed a wire fencing along the Main Road in Cocorite to deter pedestrians from crossing the road and encourage them to use the nearby walkover.
“And what eventually happened? People cut down the fence. They took pieces of the fence…pieces of the pole. They don’t seem to understand they (pedestrians) are multiplying the risks to other people around them just through the choices that they make.”
Inglefield: Guilty offenders are poor and lack road safety education
President of Arrive Alive Sharon Inglefield believes people lack proper guidance on the use of the infrastructure. She said there was the need for installation of walls, railings, traffic signs and concrete barriers leading to the exit and entrance points of the walkovers.
Although Inglefield is not an engineer she said “in some instances, we suspect that the walkovers were not placed in the correct locations.”
Inglefield said research has shown that in countries where jaywalking laws are legal, they are not enforced.
“Unless the police are going to enforce that law it’s no point having that legislation in place.”
Inglefield said it was hard to judge people who risk their lives by darting across four or six lanes of traffic.
Many of the guilty offenders, she said, are poor and lacked road safety education while some live in desperation and hopelessness.
Inglefield became emotional as she remembered visiting an elderly woman whose adult son was run over by a vehicle a few years ago.
“The son was killed and that little old granny in that wooden house said her husband was an alcoholic and her son was an alcoholic. How could I judge that family? If I were in her position, how do I get my big grown son not to cross a six-lane highway?”
No laws for pedestrians to cross at designated locations
Guardian Media spoke to two Port-of-Spain taxi drivers who traverse the nation’s highways daily.
Driver Windward Bartolo said it was normal to see pedestrians running across the roads.
“They does cross with children in their hand whilst the light say green for traffic. The walkover right there and they crossing underneath and is like, bounce meh nah.”
Wrightson Road/Long Circular driver Gary Waldropt said the law should not apply to motorists alone.
“It have walkways, it have walkovers, zebra crossing and they just cross willy-nilly. It have no law stating that you must cross at a zebra crossing. It have no law stating that you must use the walkovers and if you don’t use the walkovers you will be charged,” Waldropt said.
Assing’s final message to people considering taking shortcuts that might end up costing them their life: “Don’t try and beat the light because half of the time the light does end up beating you. So, take your time and use the walkover.”
Ministry of Works spends millions
In an attempt to provide safety and preserve lives, the Ministry of Works and Transport (MOWT) has constructed 25 walkovers along the east-west Corridor and Central areas.
These walkovers came with a price tag of $250 million.
Traffic engineer at the MOWT, Adande Piggott said the walkovers were geared towards T&T fulfilling a United Nations 2011 to 2019 safer road and mobility action plan, comprising five pillars. During that period, he said, the Government invested US$40 million on walkovers, traffic signals, police bays, barrier systems, pavements markings and road rehabilitation to reduce road fatalities by 50 per cent.
Piggott said surveys showed 82 per cent of pedestrians use the walkovers.
“The 18 per cent do not use the walkovers for various reasons…sometimes it takes a little bit longer to cross the roadway or they find it too high or they are fearful of heights. You have issues of…it is too far away to get to the walkover. Sometimes the ramp is too long or possibly too steep. Lack of shelter. Sometimes we get inadequate lighting,” Piggott said.
Piggott said a tremendous amount of money, effort and time went into the construction of these walkovers and it was disappointing they are not being put to full use.