08/15/2011 03:12 EDT | Updated 10/15/2011 05:12 EDT

Haiti's Young Men on Motorbikes

Upon returning to Haiti, the contingent that really caught my eye was the army of young males on motorbikes, riding with the cockiness of immaturity exacerbated by the frustration of travel on Haiti's miserable roads.

I hadn't been back to Haiti since the tremblement, the earthquake that killed countless people and devastated so much of the country. The destruction was immediately evident. On both sides of the airport road, settlements of uniform grey tents were pitched close. In the crammed capital of Port-au-Prince that was once my home, I saw the rubble and ruins, and more appalling encampments of tattered tents. Amputees, most victims of the earthquake, hobbled by on crutches or sticks. Streetside vendors crouched beside their wares outside storefronts that ran the gamut from wretchedly battered to freshly painted. Pedestrians hurried through the streets, a melange of humanity: half-naked men straining and sweating under too-heavy loads, smartly-dressed women in high heels, Madame Sarahs balancing massive baskets on their heads, schoolchildren in neat uniforms. There were also idle loungers, groups of young men gabbing, gesticulating, swigging bottled drinks, sharing Comme Il Faut cigarettes.

Haiti has an extraordinarily high percentage of youth in the population, 35.9 per cent under fourteen (it's 16.8% in Canada) , with a median age of 21.1 for males, 21.6 for females (38.6 and 40.4 in Canada). The contingent that really caught my eye was the army of young males on motorbikes, riding with the cockiness of immaturity exacerbated by the frustration of travel on Haiti's miserable roads.

Many of them operate as unofficial taxis, transporting customers one by one. In a country near infrastructural collapse, they are an important part of the private sector -- and only -- transportation system. As part of their scramble to pay for and fuel their bikes, they offer an affordable service that on mountainous Haiti's twisting, gutted roads, is often the only alternative to drudging on foot or mounting the rubbed-raw back of a thirsty, overburdened mule or pony.

First, some context: motorbikes proliferate throughout the developing world. Price-wise, they clobber all competition from bigger vehicles. They consume much less fuel and are easier to maintain and repair. They can navigate roads impassible in other vehicles and if they encounter unbreachable obstacles, it's fairly easy to pick them up and haul them to the nearest drivable spot. The earthquake prompted a rush on motorcycle sales and rentals as foreign aid workers thronged Haiti's roadways. The U.S. Haiti Motorcycle Project was devoted to facilitating aid delivery.

But in Haiti as elsewhere, this reliance on motorbikes exacts a terrible toll in the high incidence of traffic accidents. Statistics are unavailable, but anecdotal evidence of carnage is ubiquitous. On a single day, an accident involving two motorcycles occurred before my eyes. Minutes later, a third one crashed into a ditch feet away. On another occasion, an emergency department physician at the Hôpital Saint-Michel, the southeastern city of Jacmel's sole hospital, confirmed the frequency and severity of these accidents. I was there, as it happened, assisting and translating for my travelling companion, a Canadian doctor summoned by the frantic relative of a young man lying speechless and unmoving hours after a horrific motorbike accident.

Motorized two-wheelers are inherently riskier to drive than larger vehicles, and their young male drivers are disproportionately injured. But in Haiti other factors contribute and they speak to Haiti's weak government and near-absent infrastructure.

First, the condition of the nation's roads is abysmal and not just because of the earthquake. They are seldom maintained and many lack their asphalt covering. Side streets and rural roads are often beaten earth. Drainage is inadequate and heavy rains transform roads into slippery and muddy tracks. Even main thoroughfares lack lighting. Potholes and fallen trees or rocks obstruct roads for days or longer, forcing traffic to swerve around them. Guard rails, road signs, lane lines and traffic lights are rare. Other hazards are the sheer mass of people who, for want to sidewalks, throng the roads and often dart across them. Goats, dogs and pigs meander up and down. In the countryside, so do cows and donkeys.

Drivers (including motorbikers) do not make things easier. They are lax about observing rules of the road, including speed limits, keeping to the right lane, passing and right of way, which are seldom if ever enforced. Vehicles, many groaning under overload, are not properly maintained and corrupt inspectors issue safety certificates in return for bribes that cost less than repairs. On treacherous mountain roads, brakes fail and vehicles slide backwards, slamming into others or over cliffs unprotected by guard rails. Broken lights and malfunctioning horns are common so that in night-time, which falls early in Haiti, vehicles may be invisible to each other until just before they collide. In hours-long traffic jams, oil leaks and gas runs out, stalling vehicles. Some drivers forestall gas shortages by carrying containers of sloshing gasoline in their trunks. The appalling roads puncture tires, creating a huge commerce of tire-repairers set up everywhere at roadside stalls.

As if this were not enough, the young drivers have no qualms driving without a license. They seldom wear helmets, those expensive and aesthetically uncool barriers to bashed-in skulls. They speed, listen to loud music through earplugs that mask traffic noises, fail to signal what they intend to do, refuse to cede to other drivers. The first accident I witnessed was caused by a pair of motorbikes slamming into a truck from a side road; the young drivers had not bothered to slow down before racing onto the main road.

Motorbikers constitute a minority (albeit a substantial one) of their demographic, and in many ways resemble their counterparts all over the world and participate in delivering the essential service of transportation. But thanks to Haiti's minimal official oversight or enforcement of what laws and rules of the road do exist, they live on the edge and continually put their own and their passengers' lives at risk. In a nation whose young people are its greatest resource, surely such potential should not be so recklessly squandered.