Carnage on Roads and Over-speeding

Posted on Jul 4, 2011 in Ghana, Uncategorized

On several trucks here in Ghana, I’ve noticed a sticker on the back that reads: Please call the following number in case of careless driving and over-speeding.

Over-speeding. Most likely this is just Ghanaian English, but when I first saw it, I was struck by how it seems to reflect a significant problem.

During my first week in Ghana, more than 40 people died on the stretches of road around Kumasi and Techiman.

The Daily Graphic, a national newspaper, headlined with the story: Carnage on Roads. It went on to say that there had been 740 reported road accident fatalities in the first five months of 2011.

It sounds bad, so I wanted to compare this to Canada. The WHO has statistics on the road safety in every country. The most recent statistics are from five years ago. In 2006, 2 889 people lost their lives on Canadian roads. With a population of about 33 million at the time, that’s 8.8 per hundred thousand. The number itself surprisingly isn’t all that different from Ghana’s official statistics. In 2006, the total number of reported deaths was 1 856. With Ghana’s population at about 24 million, that’s 7.9 per hundred thousand. By these numbers, Ghana actually has less road deaths than Canada.

But here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. In 2006, there were 20 million cars registered in Canada for a population of 33 million. In Ghana, with a population of 24 million, there were less than one million registered cars.
  2. Whereas Canada’s numbers are decreasing every year, the Ghanaian stats are on the rise.
  3. These are only the reported fatalities.

In fact, if you read the appendix to the report, the statistics are a little different. Accounting for the unreported traffic fatalities and the differing definition of a traffic fatality, the WHO estimates that Ghana’s traffic fatalities are actually three times that of Canada at 29 deaths per 100,000.

There are worse places: In Egypt and Eritrea, the estimated number of traffic fatalities climbs to more than 40 deaths per 100,000, and I doubt this would surprise anyone who has ever been to Egypt. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, Japan had only 5 deaths per 100,000.)

To put traffic safety into a global perspective, over 90 % of road fatalities occur in low and middle income countries. Africa has on average double the rate of traffic fatalities as compared to the Americas and Europe.

So why are the roads so dangerous? I think the cause can be attributed to three things: a lack of comprehensive road safety laws, a lack of enforcement of existing laws, and poor infrastructure and vehicles.

According to WHO, Ghana has speeding laws, seat belt laws, and even child restraint laws. I find this information shocking. I have seen a couple of fresh speed limits posted on some paved roads that run through villages. However, I have never seen a speed limit enforced. I’m not sure it would be possible. Most cars do not have working speedometers. Speed is regulated, rather, by the level of traffic, the quality of the road, the presence of police checks, the limits of old vehicles, and occasional speed bumps, which eventually get worn down by the weight of overloaded trucks. The rickety cars that most people drive (though as the middle-class grows, the number of SUVs seems to be increasing) simply can’t take much. Windshields are broken, mirrors are missing, doors of mini-buses are often held shut or tied with rope. And there is a distinct lack of seat belts.

Things are changing, though. The recent spate of traffic fatalities spurred a number of editorials and commentaries in the newspapers. I’ve noticed that more taxi drivers reach to put on their seat belts than when I was here three years ago. And when I reach to put mine on (when there is one), people no longer chuckle at my actions.

As my shared taxi was leaving the taxi rank not long ago, a man shouted something at my driver. Other taxis were parked in front of ours blocking the entrance, and I noticed a large cluster of men off to the side appearing to watch something. It was a meeting, the others in the car informed me, on road safety. All the drivers should attend. I was a little disappointed when my driver returned to the car five minutes later ready to head on his way. He wasn’t there for long, but the point is that it happened at all.

Another surprise was on a recent trip on an inter-city bus. Before leaving the station, a voice crackled over the loudspeaker. It was a prayer that we would arrive safely (not uncommon) and a message to buckle up.

2011 is the beginning of WHO’s decade of road safety. I’m never sure what it means to dedicate a decade to something, but let’s embrace it. Buckle up, wear a helmet, and drive safely.

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