As Selimat approached the makeshift level crossing, her mind was a whirlpool of thoughts. The events that had played out with her Supervisor as she was rounding up her shift the day before were still very fresh in her mind. She wasn’t looking forward to going to work and had almost called in sick. But it wasn’t in her nature to lie. And that was the root cause of the problem with her boss from the previous day. All she had been expected to do was tell an ‘insignificant’ lie to cover up the problem and she had refused to do so. This hadn’t gone down well with her boss, and indeed, the rest of her colleagues. As she went over the railtracks, there was a slight bump and the car engine stalled! “Oh no! Not today” she screamed silently, as she turned the key over and over. The Mechanic had assured her this wouldn’t happen again. She really needed to get the car fixed once and for all, or even better, get another one but she didn’t have the money and there were too many things contending for the little she had. “God is good” she thought, as she popped open the bonnet and opened the car door, totally oblivious of where she was. That was the moment 300,000kg of steel travelling at 70 km/hr slammed into her.
While the above depiction of the tragic accident that occurred in Kubwa on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city last Thursday might not have happened exactly as described, the circumstances could have been quite similar. No one will ever know what was going through Selimat’s mind when the train rammed into her. She had obviously been on the track for more than a few seconds before the arrival of the train since someone had noticed her and had started recording before the train arrived. If she wasn’t suicidal or distracted as described in the fictional narrative above, she had time to have gotten out of the car and made her escape. Why she did not, we will never know. What we see from the video is that she opened the car door just before she was hit and that suggests she wanted to exit the vehicle. Whatever might be the backstory to the tragedy, it was a needless and avoidable one. It cannot be reversed but a reoccurrence can be prevented.
I have seen several comments in the media laying the blame for the loss of her life on Selimat. ‘She gambled with her life’. ‘She was in a hurry and thought she could beat the train’. And so on and so forth. While it may be true that she might have been reckless, that conclusion however flies in the face of conventional wisdom of women being very careful drivers, as compared to men. Women would generally rather wait for 30 minutes for the train to pass if they suspected one was approaching than take a risk of being caught on the track while trying to beat it. Whatever might be the truth, the accident could have been prevented. I have seen the response by the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), operators of the Abuja-Kaduna Train Service ‘advising’ drivers and citizens to beware of the level crossings. They requested the media to help spread the information about the dangers of the train operations widely. This is good but is it good enough? In Occupational Health & Safety management, hazards are identified and the risks arising from them are assessed and controls prioritised in tandem with the level of risk presented by such hazards. The higher the risk, the more rigorous and robust the risk control measures are expected to be. A Hierarchy of Controls has been established to address risks based on the consequential impact of the anticipated accident and the likelihood of its occurrence. The highest Risk Rating is of course assigned to any activity that could result in a fatality in the event of a failure of controls. This consequence could also be based on the sheer number of people exposed to the hazard and likely to suffer harm. The responsibility for carrying out that Risk Assessment and putting in place the appropriate controls rests squarely with the ‘owner’ of the enterprise that creates that risk. In this case that is the NRC and its employer, the Federal Government.
So, looking at this accident from a prevention perspective (of course not having carried out a formal assessment we can only extrapolate from common knowledge), we would need to address the 2 factors that influence the Risk level: (1) the likelihood of occurrence and (2) the severity of the consequence if it does occur. It is common sense that “prevention is better than cure”. Hence, to reduce the risk, you want to bring down the likelihood of occurrence to the lowest practicable level. This makes sense as without the accident happening, there will be no consequence to worry about in the first place. That would however be in a perfect world and that is definitely not the world we live in. There will be situations where a Manager of workplace risks will have to look at ways of reducing the severity of the consequences, especially if he is dissatisfied with the level to which the likelihood has been degraded. Very sadly, there is no way the severity of the consequence of being hit by a train can be reduced to ‘an acceptable level’. The question then is: what did the NRC do to prevent Selimat from being crushed by the train they operate?
The likelihood of that accident happening was foreseeable. An unguarded level crossing with no early warning system is a disaster waiting to happen. Its not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. I have found out that there have been a few close shaves in the past at the same spot. The NRC in its defence claims the Level Crossing is an illegal one and that it had provided 2 Overhead crossings for the people of the Community and its environs. As tenable as this defence sounds, I wish it could be tested in a court of law. The NRC was aware of that crossing which the people had been using over time due to the distance and poor location of the Overhead crossing provided. People will seek ways to make their lives easier. It is the way of the human. The responsibility is on the NRC to prevent cars from having access to that crossing by erecting a physical barrier (a simple concrete slab would do). The people in the community had written to the NRC as far back as 2016 requesting for a proper level crossing to be provided for them. That was a warning that should have been heeded. It wasn’t. The NRC cannot rely on people ‘doing the right thing’. If this was a society of consequences for both government and the governed, there will be greater attention paid to the issue of public safety by Government Agencies. Sadly, this too will go unsanctioned.
There cannot be too many of these kinds of crossings along the Kaduna-Abuja rail line. They can be monitored and fixed. The NRC should as a matter of urgency address them and take whatever physical or engineered measures necessary to prevent the unnecessary death of citizens. People should also understand that when you flout safety measures, you put your own life at risk and the consequences could be death OR WORSE. You are responsible for your own safety and life. Never drive on to a level crossing until the other side is clear and you can make it across without having to stop. Do not drive too close to the car in front of you. Do not approach a level crossing at speed. Slow down and be ready to stop if you are not sure you can get across safely. Do not overtake other vehicles at a crossing and very importantly: DO NOT PANIC if you get stuck. Be calm and exit the car as quickly as possible. Preserving your life is the principal thing.
Stay safe this season!
-Bakare is a Public Affairs Analyst and HSE professional