The escalating carnage on Uganda’s highways has left many people declaring that the roads “are finishing us!” The Kampala-Gulu Highway’s premiere position as the most dangerous appears to have been assumed by the Kampala-Kabale route.
In fact the apparent rise in fatalities may be a function of “being in the news” rather than a significant increase. Uganda’s roads have been death scenes for a long time.
Uganda has an annual road/traffic accident rate of greater than 200,000 victims per year. Reckless driving kills more than 1,250 people every year. These are very high numbers considering the low number of motor vehicles on Ugandan roads.
This dark picture is not unique to Uganda. It is the same in most of Africa. According to the WHO, road fatality rates in 2015 were highest in Africa and lowest in Europe. The number of road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per year was 26.6 in Africa; 17 in Asia; 15.9 in the America’s and 9.3 in Europe.
Country-specific rates showed 1.6 for Micronesia, 2.8 for Sweden, 2.9 for Britain; 6 for Canada; 10.6 for the USA; 27.1 for Uganda; 29.4 for Kenya; 32.1 for Rwanda; and 32.9 for Tanzania. The most dangerous place was Namibia with 45 deaths per 100,000 people.
Viewed from the global perspective, about 1.3 million people are killed in motor vehicle accidents every year. This translates to 1 person killed on the roads every 25 seconds. Another 50 million people are injured on the roads every year.
Motor accidents already kill more people than do tuberculosis and malaria. The global fatalities are expected to rise to 2 million by 2030, about the same number that will die of HIV/AIDS.
These numbers will continue to rise in Africa as a result of increased cars, urbanization, population growth and, ironically, building of more all-weather (tarmacked) roads.
Tarmac without road safety measures may be worse than the rugged, potholed dusty paths that we love to complain about. A smooth surface encourages speed – and death.
The idea that roads are killing our people is only half true. It is really people who are killing people. Data in every country, including Uganda, shows that human behavior and human error are responsible for the largest number of motor vehicle accidents.
Distracted driving, speeding, failure to adjust to the prevailing road conditions, driving under the influence of alcohol or other mind altering drugs, sleep deficit and fatigue multiply the risk of fatal and other serious motor vehicle accidents.
An under-recognized cause is untreated attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that affects 2 to 5 percent of adults in North America. (I do not have the figure for Uganda.)
It is true, of course, that the design, state and safety of the roads and the mechanical health of the motor vehicles are very important contributors to the accidents.
The recently tarmacked Ntungamo-Kabale road, for example, is probably more dangerous than it was before the improved driving surface. Relatively narrow, with many curves on steep slopes, and no separation between opposing traffic, it is the perfect recipe for disaster.
Last week’s horrific death of at least 10 people, killed by an out of control truck as it flew down the steep curve at the hamlet of Rwahi near the Nkore-Kigezi border, was a predictable occurrence.
The combination of a driver who was probably speeding down that corner, and Rwahi area folks who stubbornly insisted on making themselves sitting targets was what killed those people.
Driving a vehicle with poor tires or breaks or other dysfunctional elements is a human decision. Failure to slow down or giving in to the urge to overtake the vehicle ahead in a poor visibility area is a function of human behavior, not external agents.
Sadly, last week’s deaths at Rwahi were not the first and they will not be the last. Yet this need not be the case.
A multi-pronged strategy should be considered for urgent implementation. First, a sustained road safety campaign, with mass education of pedestrians and motorists alike, should be started as soon as possible.
Second, a significant percentage of the roads budget should go to well-established safety measures on existing and new roads. The safety of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users must be a priority consideration.
Third, the government should insist on licensing only those vehicles that meet high safety standards. At times African roads look like a mass junkyard.
Fourth, the government should legislate mandatory retraining and re-licensing (after examination) of all Ugandans who operate motor vehicles (including boda bodas.) No exceptions.
Of course corruption may undermine the exercise, but as the Bakiga say: “toratiina kunyaama ngu otaroota. (You cannot avoid sleeping just because you fear to dream.)
Fifth, enforcement of traffic rules and heavy penalties for any infractions, including revocation of licenses and prison terms, may be effective deterrents. This includes penalties for drunk-driving, failure to wear seatbelts, helmets (for all on motorcycles) and child restraints.
People should be forced off the roadsides and road reserves, after providing them with alternative venues for their trade.
Many Ugandan drivers seem to have a love affair with speeding. No doubt they have their reasons for rushing. However it is always better to be late than the late.