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Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Why road accidents happen
A relative waiting for news at the site of an accident in Kenya
There is a high human cost to every road accident
By BBC News Online's Damian Zane

Another week, another horrific road accident - this time in Kenya.

A look through any of Africa's newspapers will reveal that they happen with depressing regularity.

Despite public outrage at the time, little seems to happen to ensure safety on the roads.

Governments frequently lack the political will or the funds to improve the situation.

The impression of a high number of road accidents is not just a trick of news reporting.

A recent World Bank report on five sub-Saharan countries revealed a high level of fatalities from accidents.

In Tanzania in 1995 there were over 66 deaths for every 10,000 vehicles on the road. The figure for the United Kingdom for the same year was 1.4.

The biggest group of victims is pedestrians followed by passengers in public service vehicles.

The price is not just measured in human terms.

Scarce medical and technical resources are used up at the crash site and in hospital, limited foreign currency is used up importing replacement parts and vehicles.

According to one estimate this can cost developing countries up to 2% of GDP.

Who's to blame?

It is easy to lay the blame for this at the feet of individual reckless drivers. Anecdotal evidence certainly supports this.

Last November, it was reported in the Lagos papers that a mini-bus taxi caught up in morning traffic decided to drive into the opposing lane to face on-coming vehicles.

Kenyan salvage workers trying to lift a bus out of the Sabaki river
Rescue work uses up valuable resources
It ran headlong into an articulated lorry, was flung into the Lagos lagoon and everyone in the bus was drowned.

Eyewitnesses of Sunday's crash in Kenya are saying that the two bus drivers were racing each other down the road.

Many stories of terrifying journeys involve a driver that is either drunk or on drugs.

For their part, drivers of public service vehicles blame impatient passengers and also talk about the pressure to make money.

Government's role

Drawing from European experience road safety experts, however, say that national and local authorities must take action to curb traffic accidents.

They could do this not only by overseeing a well maintained and clearly sign-posted road network, but also in ensuring that drivers and vehicles are properly licensed.

Anecdotal evidence suggests how easy it is to get a licence through bribery or forgery.

A BBC correspondent in Nairobi described how the driving school that he joined made sure of a 100% pass rate by paying the examiners.

Government attempts to crackdown on unroadworthy vehicles are often short lived and difficult to monitor.

Traffic rules are in place but the police lack vehicles and equipment to enforce them.

Finance, of course, is one of the biggest problems.

Many governments will strive to build a decent road network but there is little money left over to fund road safety projects.


Furthermore if governments hope to raise money to improve the situation on the road the motorist and public transport passengers will have to pay. So political opposition is likely.

Politicians have to make a calculation about whether it can face off this opposition. Without a vocal road safety lobby this is unlikely.

But there have been successes. South Africa's "Arrive Alive" campaign has reduced the country's traditionally high death toll during the holiday periods by 6%.

South Africa, though, spends an estimated $200m on the campaign.

Most African countries do not have the funds and road safety is not enough of a priority for the situation to change in the short term.

And so stories of traffic accidents will continue to fill the newspapers.

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See also:

02 Apr 01 | Africa
Kenya buses 'were speeding'
01 Sep 00 | Africa
Gambia gets first green light
28 Sep 99 | Africa
South Africa's deadly roads
20 Apr 00 | Africa
Kenya bus crushed between lorries
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