It is about 7 o’clock ante meridiem, the early stages of morning rush hour, and motorists are greeted by heavy gridlock on the Liberation Road. As traffic moves slowly and steadily, rear view mirrors catch the image of an approaching black SUV with hazard lights flashing and what sounds like a siren blowing. With very limited space, motorists have no choice but to skilfully manoeuvre their vehicles to make way for the SUV. After bulldozing its way out of the traffic jam, its hazard lights suddenly go off and the sound of the siren abruptly ceases. The driver has wittingly utilized the “Siren Privilege” to beat traffic.
This phenomenon has become rife on roads in Accra and is observed mostly of drivers of luxury private SUVs and hearses. The drivers behind the steering wheels of these vehicles execute this gimmick so confidently it leaves one wondering whether the law actually accords them such a “privilege”.
The Law governing the use of Sirens in Ghana
The Road Traffic Act, 2004 (Act 683) is the primary law that deals with all matters pertaining to traffic and road use in the country. The Road Traffic Regulations, 2012 (LI 2180) was enacted to supplement the provisions of the Act. Regulation 74(3) of LI 2180 provides that a siren or bell may be fitted as a warning appliance and used on certain categories of motor vehicles. The first category is “a government vehicle used for official purposes by the Head of State”, the second category is “a police vehicle”, the third category is “a motor vehicle used as an ambulance by a hospital or clinic”, the fourth category is “a motor vehicle used by other recognised Government security agencies” and the fifth category is “a bullion vehicle registered by the licensing authority”.
LI 2180 also accords certain privileges to “Authorised Emergency Vehicles” when responding to emergency calls. According to the legislative instrument, a condition precedent for the exercise of these privileges by drivers of “authorised emergency vehicles” is the sounding of a siren and the flashing of emergency lamps whilst he vehicle is in motion. “Authorised emergency vehicles” are interpreted as motor vehicles used by the Police Service, the Fire Service, used as an ambulance by a clinic/hospital or one used by other Government Security agencies. In summary, only drivers of vehicles that fall under the special categories mentioned above or “authorised emergency vehicles” are allowed to use sirens on roads in Ghana.
Can Private Passenger vehicles use sirens?
It has been observed that a number of high profile personalities (government officials, members of parliament, clergymen, Heads of large corporate entities to mention a few) cruise around in private vehicles that have sirens installed in them. It is very common to see the sirens being put to use by these officials merely for the purpose of getting through traffic with ease. One may be quick to assume that, in the case of government officials, by virtue of the portfolios they hold, they are entitled to use sirens when cruising in their private cars. However, it is important to note that although certain government appointments may be tagged with entitlements to a police escort; such an entitlement ought to be distinguished from the statutory siren privilege accorded to certain classes of vehicles. Whereas the police car escorting the vehicle conveying the government official may have the siren privilege, the latter vehicle, not falling under any of the categories provided for under law, would not have such siren privilege.
The law appears to be very clear on the classes of vehicles that can have sirens installed in them. A critical analysis of the relevant provisions of LI 2180 conveys that, the creation of these categories of vehicles is based on the special purpose designated to the vehicle and not on the calibre/social status of the passengers of the vehicle. Private vehicles, regardless of who they are owned by, do not fall within any of the classes of vehicles permitted to have sirens installed in them. Accordingly, it would be unlawful in the first place to have sirens installed in such vehicles let alone use the sirens on the road.
Are Hearses permitted to use sirens?
Hearses, sometimes nicknamed “man’s last ride”, are vehicles used to convey the mortal remains of deceased persons during funerals. It has been observed that, most hearses use sirens when in operation to get through traffic. However, is such use sanctioned by law? It may be amusingly argued that the use of sirens by hearses is a means of paying last respects to the dead or even ensuring that the deceased is not late for his/her own funeral. However, it needs be reiterated that for a driver of a vehicle to be permitted to use a siren on a road in Ghana, the vehicle he drives must belong to any of the classes of vehicles provided for under LI 2180.
Hearses sometimes have the semblance of an ambulance but are not ambulances. Whilst ambulances are for the purpose of urgently conveying injured or sick persons to hospitals, a hearse is applied for an entirely different purpose bereft of any urgency. The former carries the living, the latter carries the dead. It is therefore argued that hearses do not fall within the category of vehicles entitled to use sirens. Hearse drivers who use sirens therefore act unlawfully and if dead men could talk, the corpses they carry would tell them to turn off the sirens.
To some, it may be surprising to discover that something as seemingly petty or insignificant as the use of sirens whilst driving is regulated by law. The existence of such laws underscores the notion of law serving as a tool for social order. The law on the use of sirens on Ghanaian roads is quite straightforward; in order to install and use a siren whilst driving, your car must fall under the classes of vehicles stipulated in LI 2180. If your car does not qualify, then its owner has no right to install and use a siren in that vehicle. To do so would be to commit an offence under the laws of Ghana which would render one liable to pay a fine or to a term of imprisonment.
The existence of laws to govern human conduct has hardly been the problem; the challenge has been with implementation. In the case of unlawful usage of sirens, the biggest culprits are likely to include those who even help make laws in the country. The efforts of those who are to monitor compliance is sabotaged by the fear that, for example, the owner of the Black Land Cruiser blowing its siren and bulldozing its way through traffic on the Independence Avenue is probably an untouchable “big person” in society. Such seemingly minute infractions by drivers and car owners promote lawlessness on our roads. We all have a stake and role to play in enforcing laws in this country and ultimately making Ghana great and strong. Laws on the use of sirens on Ghanaian roads exist and must be obeyed. The siren privilege is not one for all motorists.
Jeffrey Osei Mensah
Ghana School of Law, Student