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Have you seen a tro-tro driver wearing eye glasses?

Thu, 25 Jul 2013 Source: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

A friend asked this question recently: have you ever seen a commercial driver wearing prescription eye glasses? The answer is generally no, the only exception being a couple of taxi drivers I may have spotted in Accra, apart from those who wear dark glasses on their foreheads as part of the dress code. The point of that question is a very serious one which should lead to immediate action of one kind or another.

Consider this: although there are no exact statistics, an article published in the New York Times on December 9 last year says that the number of people in need of eye glasses in Ghana is roughly the same as in the US. Now, we know that nearly 75 percent of all Americans wear glasses, while the number is slightly less in the UK. In the US statistics about 30 percent of the population is short-sighted, which means they need corrective lenses to see objects clearly in a distance. This means that roughly the same percentage of Ghanaians are short-sighted and are in need of corrective lenses in order to see objects clearly in a distance, and of course to drive.

Generally speaking, awareness of eye problems in Ghana is very low except when they come with pain or some measure of discomfort. There is no routine demand for eye tests and most people go on their merry way without knowing that they do not see properly. In the same New York Times article Agnes Addo-Mensah who runs an adult education programme in the Ministry of Education was quoted as saying: "I have met with farmers who can't tell maize from grass and fishermen who can't fix their nets."

According to the World Health Organisation approximately 517 million people in developing countries are visually impaired because they do not have access to corrective treatment while the Centre for Vision in the Developing World at Oxford University puts the number at more than one billion. The Centre believes that the problem persists on a vast scale because of poverty; eyeglasses are often inaccessible or unaffordable. Thus in Western countries around 50 percent of the population wears glasses, while in Africa the estimate is between five and seven percent.

There are serious reasons for this sad, bad situation. According to official sources, in Europe there is one eye doctor for every 20,000 people; in the US the ratio is 1:25,000 people. In Africa there is one trained eye doctor for one million people, which accords very neatly with Ghana’s 50 eye specialists for some 24 million people. The inescapable conclusion must be that among our population of 24 million people, roughly one-third must be suffering from short-sightedness who cannot and should not drive without eye glasses. So, one out of every three commercial drivers must be wearing eyeglasses, but how many are actually doing so?

We are all aware that driving conditions are far from perfect in this country even at the best of times; most vehicles are faulty despite sporting the proud badge of roadworthiness; and bad drivers who can hardly see what is in front of them. This is frightening, especially when you consider how these drivers must struggle in the bad lights at night. The situation must be even worse for long distance drivers who drive long distances in the countryside on completely unlit roads. Is there any wonder that most accidents occur at night?

Simply put, we have thousands of drivers who cannot see properly even at the height of noon driving blindly in the dark. To make matters worse, some drivers wear non-prescription dark glasses which may reduce the amount of light without improving the sight of the driver. However, dark glasses at dusk or in the evening must be a no-no because it has no effect on the glare from oncoming headlamps but reduces the amount of light by which the driver could see. So we have purblind drivers hurtling through the dark carrying millions of Ghanaians every day after work!

It should not be like this, but what can we do? There is a lot we can do if we want to reduce the number of accidents and preventable deaths on our roads. There must be compulsory eye tests for every commercial driver in this country over a period of say, two years. There are scores of international organisations dedicated to vision issues and some work specifically for driver vision. There is no doubt that some of them would respond to a call for help in carrying out the tests. There must be a separate test for long-distance buses and heavy goods vehicles which make different demands on the eyes during driving under different conditions.

There is an eye test as part of the initial driving test but the fact that there are almost no eyeglass wearers among the driving fraternity suggests that either all of them, unlike the rest of us have perfect 20/20 vision or the test is not taken seriously. The latter must be the answer because it must appear like an unnecessary burden to insist that drivers whose eyesight is deficient should wear corrective lenses because most people do not know that they have bad eyesight since that is all the sight they have always had! Indeed, most people who wear glasses discovered their own deficiencies either by wearing someone’s glasses or during a routine test.

Ideally we should all take eye tests because if only 5 percent of us are wearing glasses it means millions of Ghanaians are not seeing properly which perhaps has many unseen implications. Could it be the reason why so many people don’t read? Or, is it the reason why there is so much filth because people do not see the surroundings they are fouling? Maybe if we all wore glasses we could see more clearly the kind of things we are doing to our country both practically and metaphorically.

However, the rest of us can grope and stumble along as we are doing without causing too much physical destruction to other people but drivers driving blind is a different category of trouble. This is why I am recommending the following three ideas. Firstly, the eyes of every driver should be tested and those needing glasses and other kinds of corrective interventions must be helped in some way to acquire them. Secondly, the eye test must become part of the standard investigation into road accidents. In the same way as drivers are routinely breathalysed for alcohol so should they also be eye-tested. Finally, insurance premiums must be increased for drivers who cannot show evidence of recent eye tests because drivers will comply with such directives if they will suffer in their pockets for not doing so.

There is another reason why commercial drivers, especially tro-tro drivers must be encouraged to wear glasses. It is generally known that people who wear glasses tend to be gentler than those who don’t. This could be an urban myth, but who knows, perhaps slapping a pair of glasses on one-third of tro-tro drivers will bring a complete change in driving discipline… Just a thought!

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Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi