In this election year, any presidential candidate who can assure the Ghanaian electorate that they can make traffic lights work, would most definitely win many votes from the thousands of motorists and pedestrians who have become victims of the country’s non-performing traffic lights.

Traffic lights in the national capital and other cities are often at best mere unsightly decorations and at worst instruments of confusion, destruction and death.

A simple invention, but one of the most inspired in human history, traffic lights are everywhere. They are to cities, towns and villages, what valves are to the human heart. Without them, there would be no controlled pulse to modern human habitation and life itself would be threatened.

With only three colours, green, amber and red, traffic lights direct movements of cars, trains, human beings and just about anything that moves in human settlements with motorized means of transport.

They were invented in the last century by an African American at a time when modern cities were beginning to experience “jams” between cars, humans, horse-drawn carriages and trains. Traffic lights, without doubt, can be described as the heart of the modern human settlement. In a sense, traffic lights are a measure of a society’s civilized behavior.

They are signaling devices positioned at a road intersections, junctions, level crossings, pedestrian crossings or any location that requires orderly and ordered movement. They are found all over the world and in Ghana there are about 138 signalized systems in the capital, Accra. This number, many transport and traffic experts, say is totally inadequate for a city the size of Accra.

Though the Ghanaian figures are unimpressive, many problems continue to be associated with the few traffic lights in Ghanaian cities which compound human and vehicular traffic in the country. Traffic light locations have become sites of terrible smash-ups leading to serious injury and destruction of automobiles.

In a survey conducted by ADM, it was clear that traffic lights in the national capital just don’t work and some have been out of commission for months on end without being repaired or replaced.

When ADM took up the issue with Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Daniel Julius Avorga, Commanding Officer of the Motor Transport and Traffic Unit (MTTU) of the Ghana Police Service, he said the police are not responsible for the installation and management of the traffic lights in the country.

He told ADM that “FACOL and Signals and Controllers Limited are responsible for the maintenance of the traffic light” in the city.

ACP Avorga said the police have been reporting the cases of faulty traffic lights to the two companies but “keep on receiving the same complaints of power fluctuations, hit and run drivers, obsolete spare parts and thieves stealing parts of the lights making replacements very difficult.”

Asked why the police are not present at the locations where traffic lights do not work, he attributed this to lack of manpower in the police service. This has led to the often dangerous and embarrassing presence of bedraggled unemployed youths “volunteering” and taking over those locations to direct traffic whilst at the same time badgering motorists for money.

On that, he told ADM that such “volunteers” are being arrested and some of them have been prosecuted and made fined GH¢ 60 (600,000 old cedis). Hardly a solution to the problem.

The ACP also disclosed that some of the volunteer wardens were drug addicts. “When twelve of them were put under observation”, he said “they were found to be suffering from withdrawal symptoms.”

He advised all road users to be cautious on the roads especially where traffic lights are not working and pleaded with the public and other stakeholders in traffic management to appreciate the efforts of the police and cooperate with them to make the roads safe for all.

The press, he said, should also be circumspect and stop reporting only on the negative aspects of police work. When then the PRO of the AMA was contacted he lamented saying, “I am sorry we are not responsible for the traffic lights, but go to urban roads and they would help you”.

Mr. Theodore Quaye, the Accra Metro Roads Traffic Engineer of the Department of Urban Roads told ADM that most of the traffic lights in the capital are not working because they have outlived their useful life spans of 10 to 15 years.

Because of this problem, he said, their parts are out of production. “Even where you are lucky enough to get some of the spare parts of these obsolete traffic lights, they are very expensive as compared to replacing the traffic lights entirely,” he said.

The Electricity Company of Ghana’s (ECG) frequent and constant power fluctuations, he explained, also lead to the failure of the traffic lights.The traffic lights, he said, can take 230 volts but sometimes go under voltage and over voltage resulting in the burnout of the circuits of the lights.

“Hit and run drivers” he also claimed “are also a major source of the problem.” Mr. Quaye, however said, traffic lights in Accra are being changed from the incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs which are cost effective and energy saving.

He said so far about 25 of the traffic lights have been replaced with LED and very soon the whole of Accra will be covered. He revealed that there is a project soon to be started by the Department of Urban Roads where all the traffic lights will be changed under an area-wide signal control for Accra.

The fund for the project, he said, has been secured by the government, and it is expected to be completed by 2012. “Under this project, all the 138 signalized systems in Accra will be computerized, monitored and controlled from one control room…This means the issue of non-functional traffic lights will soon be a thing of the past,” he said.

Mr. Leonard Casely -Hayford, the Managing Director of Signals and Controllers Limited, one of the two companies contracted to manage and maintain the traffic lights in Accra also confirmed the problems enumerated by the Accra Metro Roads Traffic Engineer, but said technology is leaving Ghana behind “and we should try to catch up with the rest of the world.”

Traffic lights in Ghana should be state-of-the-art technology as in other parts of the world.

“Non-functional traffic lights will soon be history,” he said.

But the question still remains: Who is in charge of Accra’s traffic lights? Who takes responsibility for locations where traffic lights don’t work? Who pays for the accidents that arise due to faulty traffic lights?

Another question, which touches very deeply into the Ghanaian psyche is why don’t Ghanaians respect traffic lights? Ghanaian drivers drive to beat traffic lights not to obey them. Amber to the Ghanaian motorist means “speed up” instead of “prepare to stop”.

As the society grapples with the problems of non-performing traffic lights, the indiscipline of the traffic light cheating driver also imposes its own problems. The simple traffic light could after all be the best yardstick of our level of underdevelopment…

PUBLICATION: Accra Mail (Accra)
AUTHOR: Opare-Akuffo And Mary Samin
DATED: 12th August 2008