Sunday, December 18, 2022

My Driving Adventures In Ghana

Recently while driving, I made a right turn at a red light after coming to a complete stop and making sure no vehicle was coming in my lane. As I turned the corner I was immediately stopped by a police officer standing nearby. He pulled over several vehicles including the ones I had just followed but signaled for them to move along when he saw me. He came up to my window and in disbelief and disgust repeatedly yelled “Why?” I said “why what?” and he quickly signaled for his partner to hop in my back seat and accompany me to the police station. As I was driving there I remembered that turning right on a red light is against the law in Ghana. I learned this before but had forgotten since I’d recently returned from driving in the US for several months. Interestingly, when I am stopped here at a red light with my right turn signal on, many times the cars behind me will honk wanting to know why I’m not going so it makes me wonder if that rule is actually enforced. Apparently it is.

We arrived at the police station a few minutes later and the commanding officer was watching World cup commentary very loudly on TV. After a few minutes of me straining to hear what he was saying, he lowered the volume and drew a diagram of the intersection and told me that even if the lane was clear and I had stopped, I was not allowed to proceed until the light turns green. He was much calmer than the original officer who flagged me down. He said I would need to go to court on Monday to discuss it with a judge. This surprised me since usually when we get pulled over, the officer tells us we did something wrong and that we will have to pay a fine OR go to court. They are usually looking for a bribe to dismiss it and let you on your way, but nobody brought up payment at all and that shocked me. I asked the officer how much a ticket for an infraction of turning right on a red light would be and he said the court would decide depending on the severity. It could be 600 cedis up to 1,200 but there was no way he could determine it. I thought that was odd that they didn’t have a set fine for traffic infractions.  He took my Ghanaian drivers license and issued me a hand written ticket which indicated I was arrested on it. He said to come back Monday at 9:00 am for court. I asked where the court is and he said nearby and to just come to the police station first.

Before I proceed, here is some background to our prior experiences with police in Ghana over the last 5 years:

Many officers have been polite and friendly when we go by a check point or are pulled over, but those instances are usually the exception. Over the years we have been pulled over for the following reasons:

-Just to be asked where we are going on many occasions

-Because the police want to know where we are from

-We've been told our car was too dirty and that was an infraction

-We've been stopped and asked what food we have because the officer was hungry

-During Covid we were pulled over for not wearing masks while driving with the windows up on the freeway

-We've been stopped and the officer asked if we would take him back to the US with us

- Most of the time we are asked if we have “something small for the boys” or “what can you do for me?” This means they want some money to proceed. We don't pay bribes when this happens. If we talk with them long enough and they see we are not intimidated tourists new to the area, they eventually let us go.

Years ago I was pulled over for running a road block at night. The road block consisted of a vehicle parked on the side of a dark road and someone with a flashlight standing in a nearby front yard.  A few minutes later I saw lights flashing as a jeep full of officers with machine guns quickly raced after us and pulled me over and angrily wanted to know why I would run through their road block. I responded I saw nothing in the road but someone walking on the roadside with a flashlight. He informed me he was going to have to take me to jail. I said “ok" and I think my calm response shocked him. When he realized we had been living in Ghana for several years and were not new he got frustrated and just asked what I was going to do for him. I pretended I didn’t know what he was getting at. He finally said the batteries in their flashlights were finished and he needed new ones and asked what I was going to do. When I told him I only had a few cedis he was insulted and walked off angrily and got in his jeep and then quickly pulled over the next car that drove past us on the road.

Once while waiting in traffic at an intersection, an officer walked up and down the line of cars checking their insurance and registration stickers. One of ours had recently expired unknown to us so an officer jumped in the back and told us to drive to the nearby police station. The boss at the station said the infraction of expired insurance was going to be over 800 cedis or go to court. I don’t usually pay bribes but I realized the insurance had lapsed so I didn’t have a problem paying a fine but didn’t want to prolong the process and go to court. I told him I only had 240 cedis and he ended up taking it and sent me on my way with no receipt or paperwork. I’m sure he documented the transaction and forwarded the money to the appropriate places.

If I do break a traffic law I am willing to pay the fine as long as it is a standard fee and not an outrageous adjusted amount just because they think I am a naive, rich American. I just get a kick out of the police choosing to get angry and lecture me about dangerous driving when on a daily basis I see the following things on the roads in Ghana:

People parking on narrow roads and obstructing traffic flow to visit shops on the side of the street.

Traffic lights at busy intersections that have burnt out bulbs and have not worked for months before being repaired.

People driving on the wrong side of the road playing chicken in an attempt to avoid the potholes on their side of the road.

Drivers running through red lights through intersections.

Cutting in front of other drivers who have the right of way.

Excessive and obnoxious honking.

Trucks packed well over capacity that are leaning over and ready to topple. I’ve seen the fallen ones blocking traffic many times too.

Motorcycles cutting between both lanes of traffic when it is not safe to pass. Several months ago one driver scratched up the side of our car doing so then proceeded to yell at my wife as if it was her fault.

Motorcycle drivers holding a cell phone up to their face while driving with just one hand.

Driving with broken headlights at night (last night I counted 11 vehicles without lights over a 2 mile stretch of road)

After living in this driving environment for 5 years I am just surprised when the police choose to get upset over small things because I'm a foreigner and treat me like I'm guilty of vehicular manslaughter when they turn a blind eye to so many moving violations all day.

Anyway, I returned to the police station Monday morning. The commanding officer showed up shortly after and said “I didn’t think you would come, so I gave your file to an associate. He will be here later today. Come back at 3:00.” I made another trip later in the day just to be told that I could either pay a fee at the police station, or go to court later which would be much more expensive. There it was, the bribe finally showed its head but it took several days instead of the usual immediate traffic stop. I ended up paying 300 cedis which was equivalent to about $25 dollars. I had broken a traffic law and I felt that was a reasonable fine. When I asked for a receipt they were surprised and laughed and said the original hand written ticket they issued was the receipt even though it contained no documentation of me paying anything. I was just glad to get my driver’s license back from them and leave.

Living here has given me greater empathy for minority groups who claim they are profiled by the police back in the US. In the mean time, I'll just keep trying to blend in better and not stick out, but that can be a challenge. Until next time.


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