1 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Curb Death-Wish Driving


The official holiday period; several days preceding Christmas, up to the New Year's immediate aftermath (stated as December 15-January 15 by Zimbabwean police) is no longer, strictly speaking, the customary, good-old, fun-filled festive season.

In Zimbabwe and in surrounding countries, particularly South Africa and indeed much of the rest of Africa, this merrymaking period always brings into sharp perspective, the fanatical, murderous, death-wish driving standards in our countries.

Just in December alone, each year, a staggering 1 000-plus real flesh-and-blood, soul-filled human beings are mercilessly slaughtered in South African road traffic accidents. In 2012 alone, over 130 people had already been officially reported dead in Zimbabwe, as of Boxing Day, in largely man-made tragedies!

Delinquent driver behaviour, out-of-touch legislation, ramshackle vehicles, poor police enforcement etc. play a starring role to aid the wanton butchery and self-sacrifice of many innocent people. If a Martian was to abruptly whoosh into Zimbabwe, he'd reasonably presuppose that the mobile phone was a gadget used for aiding driving! Its use is so commonplace yet it's supposedly illegal and a clear-and-present danger to safe driving!

And before we had toughened up the law on mobile phone use while driving; it only gets worse, as drivers are now able to access the internet while driving, adding, inexorably to driver-distraction and swelling the potential for catastrophe on the road. And texting while driving is an even more out-right danger as such a transgression obviously takes your eyes off the road for even longer periods.

Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that a horrendous 2000 teen accident deaths in the United States are a direct cause of texting while driving. In Zimbabwe, I don't quite recall hearing of anyone seriously penalised for driving and using the mobile phone contraption at the same time.

As for seat-belt use; foolish local legend says, "don't use the seat-belt; it could kill you in the event of an accident!" The routine, unrestrained child that stands in between the driver and passenger seat is a potential missile that could hurtle out of the car through the windscreen in a frontal impact or if brakes were suddenly applied. And why is the car seat not mandatory for children in Zimbabwe?

Surely, if someone can afford to buy a car, then it's a no-brainer that they can afford a car seat that, brand new, retails for as little as US$50 for basic models. As a result of the daft myth and lack of enforcement, Most drivers and passengers in Zimbabwe idiotically refrain from using the seatbelt, a scientifically proven, life-and-death safety component in the inopportune event of an accident.

It boggles the mind that notwithstanding the pervasive carnage in Zimbabwe, an open alcohol container, in a moving vehicle is not a biggie with the police. And, for all the many years that I regularly drive long distances on our roads, I have never seen a breathalyser -- and yet we want to stem this senseless carnage whose major fuel must be Driving Under the Influence !

I was unfortunate to be involved in a fatal car accident in Zambia years ago. I was a passenger and both my Zambian host and I had the humble seatbelt fastened, aided by airbags that rapidly deployed as designed on impact, played a big part in our injury-free escape, leaving us with just the brutal shock to deal with. The (unrestrained) occupants of the slightly bigger vehicle that inexplicably pounded our smaller vehicle head-on in our lane were both declared deceased on the scene.

I thought the two may have lived to tell-the-tale of what should have been a survivable accident, but both occupants were violently ejected from their vehicle on impact and the driver was sadly run-over and instantly dismembered by a third vehicle not directly involved in the initial accident. His passenger was propelled onto the bare tarmac and suffered a horrendous neck fracture and grievous loss of flesh and blood.

In the developed world, offences for heinous traffic offences, legally upgradeable to serious crime, such as Driving Under the Influence, attract hefty penalties that range from jail time, even incredibly, to the loss of one's job, whatever one does, in the case of a felony conviction for causing a death or grievous injury on the road!

Driving whilst using a mobile phone is heavily frowned upon by the law in Europe, whose evidence is hefty penalties for transgression. Sadly, in Zimbabwe, our road traffic penalties are, traditionally, laughable, as one almost never hears of severe penalties handed down for blatant disregard of traffic laws.

To his credit, Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri, has frequently come out scathing in word and indeed against corrupt traffic officers. The number of corrupt traffic police dismissed for vice is encouraging; over 150 have been sacked or are in the processing of getting the boot in 2012 alone. The figure would be far much more though as, presumably, most shady traffic cops escape the net.

Just very recently, the local judiciary has somewhat begun to see the light though, getting a little tough and sentencing commuter omnibus drivers to jail, albeit for a few months. This uncouth lot is a huge dent on road safety initiatives. They fracture, willy-nilly, any road rule you can imagine! They even, oftentimes, perilously drive their overloaded vehicles completely off the road, in their relentless haste to get ahead of everyone and everything!

They do it because more often than not, they get away with it, or in the unlikely event they are nabbed, they oftenly buy their freedom for a few bucks and are soon back on the road to perpetrate even further mayhem, death and destruction.

In South Africa, in recent years, the law has taken a much tougher stance for road accidents that result in serious injury or death where more often than not, a murder docket is opened. Still fresh in our minds is the recent sentencing of pop cult-hero, Jub Jub, to 25 years in prison for causing the death of four pupils after a drug-fuelled drag race on public roads ended tragically with his and an accomplice's vehicles mowing down innocent school children.

To be honest, notwithstanding the poor state of our highways and byways, many roads remain reasonably driveable. What is the challenge in Zimbabwe and indeed Africa, is the poor driver appreciation of such bad roads and ignoring deteriorating weather conditions, especially in this rain season, that exacerbates and creates a deadly concoction; aided by over-excitement, unroadworthy jalopies, overloading, overspeeding etc.

It has been proven in many recent studies that fatigue is a bigger killer all over the world as drivers push the threshold of tiredness. We don't talk about it much in Zimbabwe, but fatigue is obviously a big executioner. It explains so many cases where a driver, even on a wide straight stretch of road, with no second vehicle involved, just bizarrely rambles off the road and crashes.

It's bewildering that this Christmas, of all times and of all things motorised, an open haulage truck, carrying 63 people as widely reported in the local media a few days ago, manages, by some means, to evade the many ubiquitous police roadblocks!

Sadly, the end result is that this mode of transport, so ill-equipped to ferry human cargo, kills 18-plus people when it gets involved in an accident, plunging many families into bereavement and dozens more condemned to carry debilitating injuries for the rest of their lives; further staining our nation's road-safety record.

Kenya intends to join the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and Switzerland as one of the countries that don't mess around with road killers! It is reported that in Switzerland, many years ago, wealthy drivers were not being deterred by existing fines, so the government passed a new law that punishes wayward motorists according to their net worth.

It is also reported that a well-heeled diplomat from Guinea-Bissau was fined a colossal £190 000 for a speed infraction! Well that's nothing compared to a wealthy Swedish man that was caught doing an astonishing 280km/h in his Merc SLS AMG in a 100km/h limit zone-- his fine-- US$1 million and a legally-enforced forfeiture of his US$300 000 a car!

More African countries, in response to huge public pressure are increasing the heat on dangerous drivers; in Lagos, eNowNow reports that a motorcyclist who illegally ferries an openly pregnant woman or a child below 12 or more than one passenger, or a passenger with a load on the head now risks three years in prison and an automatic forfeiture of their bike.

Zimbabwe probably needs something akin to Kenya's new Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2012, which is intended to restore sanity on presently chaotic Kenyan roads. The Bill has drastically raised penalties for breaking traffic rules and the curse of Africa, Driving Under the Influence.

It is proposed to suspend driving licences for years and even jail time for decades, for certain offences. And in what must be a first, traffic police officers will be done away with. Any and all cops become responsible for traffic issues. Mandatory driver eye tests every three years are also thrown in for good measure. I wonder what the result would be if all Zimbabwean drivers were to be compulsorily eye tested!

I would hate to agree that, life is cheap in Africa -- and that of course, includes Zimbabwe too. Come on Africa, we have to start taking responsibility for our lives by criminalising many of these murders, disguised as unintentional "accidents".

We cannot be simplistically apportioning blame for road accidents on God, for what is so obvious! Maybe we really are the Dark Continent?

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