International News - June 2012

Zambia's road safety agency battles bad behaviour behind the wheel

The number of traffic accidents is falling, but lack of awareness – from drivers and pedestrians – is a stumbling block

The Great East road, which runs all the way from the Zambian capital Lusaka to Malawi, goes past the University of Zambia just outside the city centre. Once a two-lane road where accidents were commonplace, it is now a smooth straight four-lane highway with a middle-road crash barrier.

Yet the upgrades brought their own problems. In the years after the highway was built, the stretch outside the university became an accident hotspot for people trying to cross a four-lane road. To reduce accidents, the city built a red metal bridge in 2007. Still, students would risk life and limb crossing the highway if they were too far from the footbridge. Eventually, the authorities added a metal grill stretching along the safety barrier, making it much more difficult for anyone to risk their lives by avoiding the walk to the overpass.

The university bridge underlines the challenges Zambia faces in curbing road accidents. Reducing traffic fatalities is not just a question of installing safety features such as road signs, pedestrian crossings and speed bumps. It is about changing behaviour.

Traffic accidents are the third highest cause of death after HIV/Aids and malaria in this landlocked country of 13 million people. Apart from the human cost, there is also the economic cost, estimated at 3% of Zambia's gross domestic product. Most of the expenses are a drain on foreign exchange as medicines and spare car parts are imported.

Zambia created the road transport and safety agency in 2006 to tackle road safety. Since then, even though the number of registered vehicles has jumped from 181,701 in 2006 to 328,732 in 2010, the number of accidents has dropped. In 2006, Zambia recorded 64 deaths per 10,000 vehicles. By 2010, this had dropped to 42 per 10,000. Yet for Frederick Mwalusaka, the agency's chief executive, the numbers remain unacceptably high. "One life lost is one too many," he said in his office in Lusaka.

The agency's goal is to have the "most efficient and safe road transport system in the sub-Saharan region" and last year spent 35bn kwacha (£4.2m) of its overall 91.2bn kwacha budget.

As part of its attempts to increase road safety, the agency reinvigorated a schools safety campaign that had run during the 1970s and 80s before being discontinued. "We have decided to go back because we think it can influence children and turn them into road safe citizens," Mwalusaka said.

The campaign consists of fairly basic stuff – walk facing traffic and look left, right and left again before crossing. There is also a Road Smart – Life is Precious campaign, consisting of TV and radio ads and phone-in programmes to encourage the use of seat belts, and to discourage drink driving and the use of mobile phones at the wheel.

On the infrastructure side, a safety engineer from the agency works with construction teams that are rehabilitating urban roads. Paradoxically, better and smoother roads can be more dangerous as drivers are tempted to drive faster than the 45kph limit. The engineer is supposed to ensure that safety features such as speed bumps are taken into account during construction. This has proved hard in practice.

The improvement of Kanyama road in Lusaka was finished this year. But safety features were not included. "It's about a matter of priorities," Mwalusaka said ruefully. "When a road is being built, the builders focus on delivering the actual road and the road safety aspects are left until last. Unfortunately, that's what people do."

Mwalusaka said the agency is lobbying the government for its recommendations on safety during construction to be mandatory and action taken against companies that fail to implement them. "We need visibility of law enforcement on the ground," he said. "There is the issue of raising awareness but we also need to go out and identify obvious lawbreakers, the repeat offenders. The lack of enforcement has contributed to negligent behaviour."

Zambia finds itself in a curious position on enforcement. The police has the responsibility to crack down on violators of road safety, but it is the agency that has the tools – breathalysers, speed guns – rather than the police. The agency even has patrol cars and motorbikes, yet only three road traffic inspectors. As Mwalusaka said: "it's not an integrated system".

The inability of the various authorities involved in road safety to exchange information electronically is another hindrance. The Zambia revenue authority keeps track of cars imported into the country, but the information is not easily accessed by the road safety agency, making it difficult to identify vehicle owners. The certification of whether cars are roadworthy is another problem. The process tends to be "subjective" as inspectors lack equipment for their work.

Mwalusaka certainly has his work cut out for him, but at least Zambia is on the right road to reducing deaths.

Article from:  The Guardian

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