Counting the cost of road carnage

In this final part, Our Reporter AYAMI MKWANDA looks at how much the country loses due to road accidents and the way forward to reversing the situation.

As a breadwinner, John Sanuwedi left home in Ndirande at 4.30am for Lunzu Township in Blantyre but bad luck caught up with him at Magalasi when a speeding vehicle knocked him off the road.

Traffic police have a role to play as well

That was the end of the journey and the beginning of problems for him; he might have survived the accident but it left him with a disability—forever. Now he is unable to provide for his family, incapacitated.

“My children are back from school. I have relocated to a smaller house and we are struggling to get food,” he says.

True to the Chewa adage that ‘lungalunga mpobadwa chilema chichita kudza kuukulu’, Sanuwedi is just one example of many Malawians who get disabilities almost every week due to road accidents, either as passengers, drivers or pedestrians.

Road accidents like this one cost the economy

For a developing country, which needs to protect its human resource and assets, the cost of road accidents is just enormous as it continues to lose lives to the carnage on the road. Over 8 000 lives have been snatched on the road in the past five years.

“These are people who could have contributed to the development of their families, communities and the nation at large,” said road traffic police head Macpherson Matowe.

His observations might not be far from the truth, as among those lost on the road in the past five years are neurosurgeon George Nga Ntafu, High Court Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa, 22 Malawi Defence Forces (MDF) soldiers, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) secretary general Eklen Kudontoni and many more.

On December 7, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report saying approximately 1.35 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes and road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged between five and 29 years and between 20 and 50, million more people suffer non-fatal injuries, with many incurring a disability as a result of their injury.

But, apart from human loss, the country has also lost property worth billions, according to automobile engineer Henry Masoka. 

Some motor vehicle mechanics share his observation, saying the cost of fixing damaged property after an accident is usually high.

“Repairing damaged vehicles, replacing damaged road facilities, rebuilding damaged fences or buildings and other such infrastructure that suffer damage during accidents is very costly. This is money which would be put into some use,” observes Jordan Amin, a motor vehicle mechanic based in Ndirande Township.

Road traffic crashes cost most countries three percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) as road traffic injuries cause considerable economic losses to individuals, their families and to nations as a whole. These losses arise from the cost of treatment, as well as lost productivity for those killed or disabled by injuries, and for family members who need to take time off work or school to care for the injured, reads the  WHO report.

Since road crashes are a global health and development challenge with significant human and economic costs, especially in developing countries such as Malawi, the United Nations (UN) has adopted specific road safety targets in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road crashes by 2020.

And, speaking during the Africa Road Safety Day commemorations in Karonga a month ago, DRTSS head Francia Fergus Gondwe who lamented the loss of life on the road this year’s commemorations, themed on ‘Promoting Road Safety through Behavioural Change’ to change people’s behaviour in line with pillar number four of the Global Decade of Action on Road Safety (2011—2020), emphasised ‘safer road users’. 

Way forward

To end road traffic accidents, Masoka believes the country should reorganise the transport industry, by instituting a body of professional automobile engineers and bringing order in the industry.

“With strong transport industry regulations, we will create strong safety standards for roads and vehicles and enhance teamwork between automobile engineers, traffic police, DRTSS, the justice system, Parliament and Roads Authority (RA),” he says.

Masoka opines that other stakeholders such as RA, DRTSS, and motor vehicle mechanic workshops should be sharing the blame when accidents occur.

“Since many accidents happen because of negligence to enforce and obey laws and regulations, we must hold the authorities to account as well. For instance, if an accident happens because of bad roads, RA should account for that.

“Likewise, if an accident happens due to brake failure, DRTSS should be answerable because they are the ones who certify the fitness of cars,” he explains.

Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS) says it has employees with vast skills in motor vehicles with academic qualifications in engineering.

“These people are assigned various tasks including certification of vehicles for fitness and testing and licensing of drivers. Therefore, it is only qualified and competent people that are authorised by the Directorate to test and certify vehicles and drivers,” says DRTSS spokesperson Angellina Makwecha.

In 2017, DRTSS adjusted fees for road traffic services and fines in an apparent attempt to reduce increasing cases of road accidents largely blamed on reckless driving.

The authorities said in a statement that the adjustments were also necessitated by an increase in cost of service and materials that the directorate uses to serve the general public.

“On the other hand, the continued increase in violations of road traffic laws has shown that the current fines and penalties are not deterrent enough hence the increase,” read the statement in part.

However, some motorists fault the police for not enforcing laws on pedestrians who just cross busy roads and highways at any point and not on the crossing point.

“In other countries such as South Africa, pedestrians cannot just cross a road at any point, even if there is no vehicle approaching. The police arrest them. And this helps to bring sanity on the road,” says Justin Ngoleka, a minibus driver.

The police still hold that the major remedy of road accidents rests with drivers who are supposed to follow speed limits and observe other regulations.

“If a vehicle is over-speeding, it is difficult to stop if any emergency occurs. Drivers should always stick to speed limits,” says Matowe.

Offering a word of advice to governments, WHO says they should follow the safe system approach that accommodates human error in accidents.

“The safe system approach to road safety aims to ensure a safe transport system for all road users. Such an approach takes into account people’s vulnerability to serious injuries in road traffic crashes and recognises that the system should be designed to be forgiving of human error.”

In 2017, WHO released Save Lives: A Road Safety Technical Package, which synthesises evidence based measures that can significantly reduce road traffic fatalities and injuries.

The handout focuses on speed management, leadership, infrastructure design and improvement, vehicle safety standards, enforcement of traffic laws and post-crash survival. 

However, the transport industry cannot be complete without insurance companies. In Malawi motor insurance is compulsory and the insurance companies hold an implied duty to care and reduce bad vehicles on the road.

According to a paper published in 2015 titled How the Insurance Industry Can Make Our Roads Safer by Karla Gonzalez Carvajal, the insurance industry plays a hidden role in the road safety agenda since it ensures almost one billion vehicles globally, helping to reduce the costs of road crashes to society and the economy.

“Improvements in road safety benefit the public as well as the insurance industry. Broad-based insurance coverage makes sure that the health and property costs for victims of road crashes are protected. It also benefits insurance companies by expanding their market. In the same vein, reducing the number of severity of crashes benefits all of us, while it reduces the volume of claims to insurance firms,” reads the report in part.

Until motorists start adhering to laws, roads made safe and vehicle safety standards are put in place, road accidents will continue to be the order of the day.  n

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