Crime, Motorcycle Safety and Radical Reform in Jamaica
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.
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 ‘pestilent’ yeng yengs. To some extent, Jamaican politics has often viewed motorcycle culture as a serious “crime problem”. This is 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 missing a bigger picture or even making things worse?
I dare say, it has happened before.
A FAILED ‘1000cc’ 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.
In too many ways, 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.
With motorcycles, Jamaica has consistently prioritized anti-crime policies instead of safety policies. It is not widely acknowledged, however, that the late-80s ‘high powered’ motorcycle ban in particular, never actually helped to reduce crime. There is certainly no evidence in our murder statistics. The “so-called” high-powered motorcycle ban remains in place today as one of many old anti-crime solutions. Its value has proven to be purely political.
As a further road safety complication, vulnerable citizens often whisper that they prefer riders without helmets so that they can more easily identify any approaching motorcyclists.
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. Furthermore, death is far more likely if that person is not 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
Historically, the biggest problem has been undocumented motorcycles. Contrary to a common stereotype, legitimate and legally-imported, high performance motorcycles are too expensive to be widely used as ‘criminal tools’. This has always been true. As a result, when legitimately imported, these particular motorcycles were never 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 widely allowed 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. There was no paper trail. 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. Barrel bikes are still here…and still coming.
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. Often imported 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.
The policing strategy to push for motorcycle documentation has actually worked to curtail ‘barrel bike’ problems. It proved to be far more useful as an anti-crime tool than the ‘1000cc ban’.
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. In fact, the retail price on a Yeng yeng is cheaper than the black market price of a barrel bike.
The yeng yeng’s top speed is a comparatively slow 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.
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. This fact is backed by statistics available through corporate clientele.
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. Jamaica should embrace the legitimate transportation, commercial and recreational roles that motorcycles are playing in Jamaica. If we do this, criminality will have a much harder time festering between lanes.
CHANGING THE TIDE
Collectively, it would be healthy for the nation to acknowledge that we’ve been doing this ‘motorcycle’ thing badly 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 to cultural reform as if that young person at risk was our own son or grandson.
The BTB Mission team has been tackling the problems as we see it. Our real goal is to attract, excite and 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.