OUR ROADS: It’s Dangerous Out There

AndrekThe Sierra Leone Road Transport Authority (SLRTA) is all over the airwaves these days raising awareness about road safety-kudos to Dr. Sarah Bendu, the Director General and her team. One of the most effective enforcement measures undertaken by the Sierra Leone Police in recent times has been that relating to the wearing of seat belts. Traffic police are hand in gloves with SLRTA traffic wardens in issuing out tickets (collecting the Le400,000 fine instantly from defaulters or probably if the infringement takes place in a corner street exercising “discretionary” fines). I was recently a target for enforcement when after a young "serviceman” friend had tracked me downtown on a Saturday, he forgot to belt up and an overzealous traffic police took the instant evidence by snapping his picture in the car at the Post Office. I was dumbfounded at the needless coughing up of the huge fine, when my friend realising that his “Saturday” would be part of the fine made a final plea to the Police-“Aye Officer, nar me Satiday go so, mine!

How safe our roads are in actual fact may be quite another matter. Many of us have lost family members and close acquaintances to road accidents-many in the prime of their lives. Just last year 18 people were killed in one of the worst road accidents in Sierra Leone-16 women, one man and a three month old baby died in the crash.

Approximately 1.24 million people die every year on the world’s roads, and another 20 to 50 million sustain non fatal injuries as a result of road traffic crashes. Road traffic injuries are estimated to be the eighth leading cause of death globally, with an impact similar to that caused by many communicable diseases, such as malaria . They are the leading cause of death for young people aged 15–29 years, and as a result take a heavy toll on those entering their most productive years.

In Sierra Leone Road transport is the most dominant mode of transport and represents about 85% of the entire transport system. 95% of the inland transport of passengers and goods are carried out on roads. The number of vehicles registered in Sierra Leone may now be well over 70,000. There is also a proliferation of “Okada” motorcycles.

I am not privy to more recent statistics, but those for 2009 indicate that 2,204 road traffic accidents were reported; 165 of these were fatal crashes in which 216 persons were killed. A total of 572 persons were seriously injured and 1,449 were slightly injured. Passengers are the most vulnerable road user group (60% of all fatalities) followed by motorcyclists (20%) and pedestrians (15%). Most (47%) of the crashes are reported in the Western Area. I am almost certain Okada accidents have driven these figures upwards.

Sierra Leone also has some thorny problems. Old and unsafe vehicles, poor compliance by road users with traffic regulations and high levels of risk-tolerance by road users are commonplace. There are hardly any highway patrol vehicles and very few patrol motorcycles and no speed radars to assist in speed detection and management. There is poor implementation and enforcement of alcohol management measures and no relevant testing equipment. Although, implementation and enforcement of seat belt management has improved many seatbelts are in poor working condition. There is however fairly good enforcement of helmet use amongst motorbike riders and passengers.

There is little focus on pedestrian facilities except for zebra crossings. Most imported vehicles are used vehicles that are more than 5 years old-many considerably older. With very few driving schools, driver training standards are poor. There are also hardly any training courses for truck and bus drivers.

The institution that is supposed to manage this melee is the SLRTA with Dr Sarah Bendu at its helm. With an ever increasing number of vehicles registered and the proliferation of Okadas, street trading and general indiscipline, she certainly has her work cut out. It has therefore been heartening to see that new initiatives are being undertaken in many areas by the SLRTA. They have certainly been very vocal in their public awareness and the DG herself has proved to be very passionate and knowledgeable in her media appearances.

SLRTA was set up to regulate and coordinate development in the road transport industry, including the registration and licensing of vehicles and drivers. The effectiveness of carrying out their mandate to reduce the number of accidents, fatalities and injuries in road traffic, improve safe road user behaviour through increased awareness of traffic regulations and accident risks, improve the competence of drivers and improve the vehicle fleet through rigid inspection procedures and enforcement of appropriate vehicle standards is also dependent on the effectiveness of other MDAs.

I listened to a programme the other day in which the SLRA was lambasted for allowing roads to be poorly designed and for poor maintenance of the roads in general. The SLP has a dedicated Traffic Police unit that is responsible for traffic control and traffic law enforcement. Various transport organisations help look after the interest of their members-the Motor Drivers’ Union and host of Bike Riders’ associations have been very vocal but probably failed to keep their membership in line.

The task of reducing the danger on our streets is one that the SLRTA has been doing its best to address but clearly for this to be successful, other MDAs and the government as well as we the public should lend a hand. Experience worldwide has indicated that adopting and enforcing legislation relating to important risk factors – speed, drink–driving, motorcycle helmets, seat-belts and child restraints – has been shown to lead to reductions in road traffic injuries.

In Sierra Leone there is now greater compliance with the use of motor cycle helmets and seat belts. The SLRTA has recently mooted the idea of breathalysers and there are a host of speed bumps on many of the newer roads. The SLRTA has done a fairly good job of awareness raising. Many of the bad practices including overspeeding, reckless driving, poor vehicle maintenance and total disregard for traffic rules still continue however.

SLRTA alone can clearly not sort out all these ills. Legislation would need to be more rigidly enforced. More effort is needed to make road infrastructure safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The needs of these road users must be taken into consideration earlier, when road safety policy, transport planning and land use decisions are made. Addressing the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists is critical to successfully reducing the total number of global road traffic deaths. In Sierra Leone ironically, motorcyclists are a big part of the problem. More regular inspection of existing roads should help. Unfortunately the accusation is made that there are currently no routine regular road safety audits in place on the entire road network and no compliance regimes. The SLRA undertakes black spot improvement works, but critics say they are not routine and as comprehensive as they ought to be. Clearly also, as indicated in the national transport policy, more effort should be put into encouraging the development of other transport systems and in having a mass transit system. A long term view should be taken of the Okada problem-this may be too complex to analyse here for now.

Whatever the case, the SLRTA should not relent with its current impetus and Government should ensure it is given all the support in carrying out its mandate.

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Critique Echo Newspaper is a major source of news and objective analyses about governance, democracy and human-right. Edited and published in Kenema city, eastern Sierra Leone, the outlet is generally referred to as a level plying ground for the youths, women and children.

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