Crime, Motorcycle Safety and Radical Reform in Jamaica

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Jamaica is about thirty to forty years behind the modern world when it comes to motorcycle safety and usage.

It’s time to fix that. In fact, by changing our attitude to both motorcycle safety and how motorcycles are integrated in the society, we could help to tackle several kinds of crime and harmful conduct.

Motorcycles owned by BTB members Tarik Kiddoe and Andre Rickards arranged for a quick photo op as they prepare to depart Sandals Negril hours after a great workshop.

In a safer Jamaica, more people would ride. These days, three out of every four persons who ask about learning to ride a motorcycle…are female. Many are hesitant given the disorder that exists on Jamaican roads. Robbers. Robot Taxis. Drivers on cellular phones. They all contribute increased risk to even the simplest ride from point a to b. How much value could we gain on a national level through a radical reform in this arena?

A ‘MENACING’ PUBLIC PERCEPTION

Historically, the subject of “motorcycle safety” in the true sense, was never a political hot-button topic. Some view it as an analogy for controlling “ghetto or Dancehall” culture – from Ninja bikes to RRs and yeng yengs. To some extent, Jamaican politics has often viewed motorcycle culture as a serious “crime problem”, especially in light of multiple instances of robberies and other offenses where motorcycles were used.

One recent draconian proposal was to ban the importation of the smaller-engined motorcycles that feature in many of these crimes. Another more publicized thought was for the implementation of laws requiring mandatory motorcycle vests and helmets with registration numbers on them as an additional anti-crime strategy. However, what if by pressing towards such knee-jerk reactions, we risk wasting resources, missing a bigger picture or even making things worse?

I dare say, it has happened before.

A FAILED POLICY

Almost thirty years ago, around 1989, we implemented laws to restrict the lawful importation of “high-powered motorcycles”. That was a similar reaction to crime occurring around the time of the murder of Free I, Peter Tosh and others. In contrast, Jamaica never made it a priority then to develop proper motorcycle training, registration or licensing systems or even to care if the motorcycling public was required to wear a helmet…or rode with just a “learner’s” forever.

BTB Team members Alyia Titus, Tarik Kiddoe and Jordan Mullings demonstrate safe group riding formation and signals.

In all honesty, Jamaica has omitted to do most of the things that would make motorcycling as safe, modern and organized as it is in Europe or some parts of the USA. We need not look beyond our mandatory helmet usage law that is hardly enforced…and is admittedly very challenging for police to enforce as is.

We focussed on anti-crime policies instead of safety policies. It is not widely acknowledged, however, that the late-80s ‘high powered’ motorcycle ban, never actually worked to reduce crime. There is certainly no evidence in our murder statistics. The “legitimate” high-powered motorcycle ban remains in place today as a part of an old anti-crime solution.

EVEN A SMALL MOTORCYCLE CAN KILL

The fatality rate among motorcyclists in Jamaica tripled from 2011 to 2015. Only then did “the system” really begin to wake up. The influx of smaller-engined Chinese ‘yeng yeng’ motorcycles proved definitively that even a relatively tiny utility motorcycle can kill its rider if that person isn’t properly trained.

Through our crime statistics, Jamaica also learned that criminals can use these small-engined low-powered motorcycles to rob and kill others. The stereotypical image of a murderer or robber using a thunderous big-engined ultra-high-powered motorcycle then speeding off…became as outdated as the ban that this stereotype inspired. But was the scenario ever the full truth? Not really.

THE REAL NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT

The real problem was undocumented motorcycles. Contrary to a common stereotype, legitimate and legally-imported, high performance motorcycles have always been too expensive to be widely used as ‘criminal tools’. As a result, when legitimately imported, these particular motorcycles were not the real threat. Not even 30 years ago.  Rather, the national security problem was the fact that undocumented gray-market high performance motorcycles or “barrel bikes” were cheap, easy to obtain and to operate on public roads.

In other words, the stereotypical criminal using a loud high-performance bike to commit a crime was usually riding a machine that was not legally imported to begin with. The extreme national security hole back then was that a customs import ban could not stop a bike that customs never officially saw. It still can’t.

THE REAL POLICE SUCCESS

Statistics will show that between 2004 and 2010, these “bandooloo” high-powered motorcycles began to decline in availability and usefulness. This was a direct result of a much more successful policing strategy. Police started leveraging tax office and titles office changes to seize unregistered, illegally imported and stolen ‘barrel bikes’. Many of these motorcycles were only cheaply available prior to this because they had been stolen overseas, thrown into barrels and shipped to friends and family in Jamaica as ‘flour and household items’. They were illegally reassembled and ridden around with no legitimate motor vehicle documentation whatsoever – uptown and downtown.

With the police push to demand proper documentation, most people who have barrel bikes even today have to constantly dodge police seizure. Barrel bikes are now far less common and are impractical for day to day use – whether by hardened criminals…or persons looking for cheap gray-market transportation.

RISE OF THE YENG YENG

Low cost, legally-imported 125cc to 250cc ‘yeng yeng’ motorcycles have become ubiquitous, replacing “barrel bikes” in terms of popularity among the masses. The yeng yeng’s top speed is a comparatively snail-paced 120km/h. Most police cars are much faster.

Never-the-less, murders and robberies are still committed using these relatively slow motorcycles. How much policing time did we waste over the past 30 years focusing on motorcycle engine size? Nobody knows. Nevertheless, current data illustrates that engine size is not that important to criminals.

MODERN REALITY: TACKLING CRIME v. SAFETY

What criminals prefer is any vehicle that is common enough to blend in easily. In 2017, that means Nissan Tiida, Toyota Corolla or these cheap yeng yeng motorcycles.

BTB Administrator Tracy Lewis poses beside motorcycles neatly lined up for a BTB Motorcycle Safety workshop. The event was held in partnership with Sandals Resorts International and the NRSC at Negril Hills Golf Course. Note: The two​ high performance motorcycles in the bunch stick out like a sore thumb.

It is stunning though, that even with the proliferation of yeng yengs, crime represents far less than one percent of all the motorcycle-related activity in Jamaica.

Draconian anti-crime policies are popular. However, the hidden social issue is that decades of treating motorcycles from an ‘anti-crime’ mindset has left us totally unprepared for the level of proliferation of cheap motorcycles from a road safety perspective. The country at large has been slow to acknowledge the ways in which motorcycle safety may empower or cripple the society. We have been paying for this choice in ‘menacing’ health care and other costs.

In the absence of modern motorcycle safety policies the result is: Very little order. Few enforceable rules…giving police a basket to carry water.

Crime loves disorder. It hates well-organized spaces. We should embrace the legitimate transportation, commercial and recreational roles that motorcycles are playing in Jamaica. Criminality will have a much harder time festering between these lanes.

CHANGING THE TIDE

Collectively, it would be healthy for the nation to acknowledge that we’ve been doing this ‘motorcycle’ thing wrong for 70 years. That is long before any 17 year old young man on a yeng yeng was even born. It would be even healthier if we could commit the next three – five years to fixing this problem. Commit as if that young person at risk was our own son or grandson.

Negril Motorcyclists stand with Kiddoe to say hello from Negril Police Station. Two of the motorcyclists pictured here already attended BTB Safety events. The rest are eager to attend the next Negril staging.

The BTB Mission team has been tackling the problems as we see it. Our real goal is to empower, while protecting families from grief and hospital bills. Applied nationally, such a change in safety policy will save money and improve lives for years to come.

Ultimately, we will need the public’s help… and we are listening keenly to hear your feedback.

Tarik Zawdie Kiddoe is an entrepreneur and is the conceptualizer of the Back to Basics Motorcycle Safety Mission. The BTB Team also includes motorcyclists Andre Rickards, Jordan-Reu Mullings and motorsports personality Marcia Dawes.

(Part Two – Cutting Crime: A simpler and more viable national security suggestion than mandatory “marked” vests and helmets for motorcyclists.)