In the past, the sight of black-and-white uniform men of Vehicle Inspection Service (known as VIO, an acronym for Vehicle Inspection Officers) put the fear of God in Lagos drivers whose documents are incomplete or invalid or those driving jalopy cars. But for some time now, they were tamed, and have been off the road, so to speak. Now they are back and road users have to be wary, especially vehicle owners whose number plates were issued elsewhere other than Lagos State.
This was the position of Gbolahan Toriola, Executive Director, Lagos State Vehicle Inspection Services (VIS), who declared unambiguously that number plate are expected to be obtained by vehicle owners “in the state where you live.” He made the declaration in response to an enquiry by Saturday Sun arising from the ordeal of Ekene Eze, a tricycle operator whose vehicle was impounded over the use of Ogun State-issued number plate.
Tricycle operator’s experience
On June 16, 2019, Ekene Eze was stopped by operatives of VIS who requested for his vehicle license and driver’s permit. What he presented were complete and valid documents, yet the officers seized his tricycle key. His offence: he was using the wrong number plate. Truly, his tricycle bears an Ogun State number plate.
They told him that with the return of Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) on Lagos roads, it is an offence for residents and commercial drivers to drive around with another state’s number plate and those found culpable are liable to be fined.
Thus began his ordeal. “I explained to them that I bought the Keke Maruwa from Ogun State and that it already had a number plate,” Eze explained. “And in Lagos, I got all the needed documents including driver’s license.”
His explanations fell on deaf ears. The VIO coerced him into submission––“They seized my key, threatening to take it to their office. I pleaded with them but they insisted that I should do the needful or they will impound it and I would have to pay N40, 000.”
As the breadwinner of his family, the Keke Maruwa was the family’s source of livelihood.
“After begging them, I was asked to go and get N15, 000. When it was obvious that they were taking my Keke to their Ejigbo station, I had to withdraw all that I had and borrowed the remaining sum from my friends and gave them.”
He shared his experience with his uncle who furiously told him that he had been conned. You didn’t commit an offence, he was told.
But a few days later, he was ensnared again. “I went about my duty, trying to save money to buy another plate number when I was accosted again by VIO officers in Ejigbo. It was the same issue. I told them that my uncle said that I did not commit any offence.”
That statement angered the officers. This time, they formally impounded his tricycle and asked him to go and pay a fine of N40, 000. That was not all; he was required to acquire a plate number from them and promptly change his entire license to reflect the new number.
“They told me this is Lagos and that no one can save me,” Eze narrated. That was when he approached Saturday Sun with his story.
The VIS position
Eventually, Eze got his tricycle without paying a dime. This was how it happened. “As soon as I got to VIO office in Alausa, I was granted immediate access to the Director of VIS, Mr Gbolahan Toriola, who ordered the immediate release of my tricycle. He also ordered an investigation of the matter and directed me to go back to the commander of the zone. In less than an hour, the officer that seized my Keke was asked to return the N15, 000 that was collected from me. The commander also asked them to release my Keke, which they did.”
The VIS director, however, advised Eze to get a new number plate without delay. He impressed it on the tricycle operator that it is an offence in Lagos to use the number plate of another state for commercial purposes.
During a phone chat with Saturday Sun, Toriola was unequivocal. “The law is clear, it is where you live that you must obtain your number plate,” he affirmed.
Continuing, he said: “It is also a means of identification and for security purposes. The number attached to the person has the details of that person. In a civilized country, once you move to another state, you must change your plate number because they want to know who is permanently within their state.”
In the case of commercial drivers, obtaining a Lagos State number plate is a must. “Our law says that if you live in an area for more than six months and above, you must change your vehicle number. As a commercial driver, you must get the number plate of the state that you are doing business,” he insisted. “You can travel on transit and return back to your state. So you don’t have to collect vehicle license in any state you enter.”
Roles of Vehicle Inspection Service
According to the VIS director, it is the responsibility of the agency to ensure that all vehicles plying the Lagos roads are roadworthy. “If you look at the Lagos transport sector law, it is our responsibility to ensure that all vehicles plying our road are roadworthy. Before you get your license, VIS officers are the middlemen that confirm your driving test and other checks to be sure that the applicant is fit for that license.
Next is the issue of accident investigation, it is the responsibility of VIS to provide evidence that will enable the police to prosecute the case. We are to investigate what caused the accident and in that way identify who caused the accident.”
He went further: “It is also our responsibility to register a vehicle. We have equipment known as the Magneto Optical device that will review the vehicle state, right from the manufacturer.
It’s the first in West Africa and can be found in leading African countries. We have it in Lagos, for instance. We can tell if a vehicle is stolen or defective.” He, however, discounted the notion that Vehicle Inspection officers are on the road simply to generate revenue for the government.
“Lagosians should realize that it is not about the fine,” he said firmly, “but for them to obey the law. The fine is there as a deterrent.”
Explaining further, he said: “Those days, it (checking a vehicle) was done manually; now we use a machine. We stop vehicles randomly and ask drivers for the particulars. We also use our eyes to access if a vehicle is roadworthy or the vehicle is doing illegal job or activities, but the machine does the vehicle verification for us. It will pick your vehicle number and if there is an issue, it will automatically bill you. When you receive your bill, the offender is given an opportunity to challenge it, knowing that no system is perfect, so you are allowed to challenge the fine if you think you can prove that it was unnecessary.”
He advised Lagosians to report any form of misconduct by officers of VIS: “We have avenues to seek for redress. You can come to our office in Alausa; there is also a number on our social media platform. You can challenge it or mention what transpired between you and officers of VIS because the law does not exclude them. If they misbehave they must be sanctioned.”
On the case of Ekene Eze, the tricycle operator, he confirmed: “the officers who were involved are currently facing the disciplinary committee.”
Saturday Sun asked him for the reason behind the past recall of VIS officers from the streets of Lagos. According to him, government had at the time requested that the organization deploy machine to do their job. “We went back and did proper investigation and realized that it is impossible to do our job with machines alone; government agreed with us. This is why our men were returned to the streets again,” he said.
FRSC counters VIS
Meanwhile, Bisi Kazeem, National Corps Public Education Officer of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) insisted that Ekene Eze did not commit an offence and that it is wrong to arrest anyone with the plate number of any state.
Said he: “The plate number is universal. If you have the plate number of Taraba, you can use it. It is one unified plate number. As long as the documents are correct. You can also do your license anywhere; if you are in Abia when it expired, then go ahead and process it there.
“This does not exclude those using their cars for a commercial purpose; the only thing that can be asked is the roadworthiness. If it is not the same you can be asked to apply for that especially here in Lagos. It is not applicable in so many states. “They can only ask you to change the plate number if you are still using the old plate number that we have outlawed. This only where it is applicable.”
Lagos State Police spokesman, Bala Elkana weighed in on the matter, stating where the police come in when traffic issues arise. “Part of the duties of the police as enshrined in Section 4 of Police Act is regulation of traffic by ensuring a free flow of traffic,” he said.
According to him: “We also enforce the traffic law and ensure that offenders are charged to court. It is the responsibility of the court to determine the appropriate punishment. While also doing that we prevent and detect crime most especially traffic robbery.”