3 April 2013

Zimbabwe: End the Tolerance On Our Country's Roads

Photo: Hill Ezeugwu/Vanguard
A petrol tanker after an accident.


Fifty people died on Zimbabwe's roads over Easter, almost all of them because a driver decided to have a few drinks before racing off, or because a driver was speeding, or because a driver failed to give way, or because a driver was chatting on a mobile phone instead of looking at the road, or because a driver committed some other criminal breach of the Road Traffic Act or regulations.

There is an incredible tolerance in Zimbabwe, despite the appalling loss of life on our roads, the injuries and the destruction of property, over allowing criminals to drive around killing and maiming people.

People laugh when they see a drinker climbing behind a wheel, almost everyone exceeds the speed limit and many boast about doing so. Drivers go through amber and red lights, and consider themselves hard done by if they are caught by police, and publicly complain about having to pay the derisory fine, instead of hiding their criminal act in shame.

Drivers pass on details of where road blocks are placed and boast about avoiding them, or boast how they slowed down to the limit for a kilometre to avoid a known speed trap.

This tolerance must end.

It can be safely said that if all road laws in Zimbabwe were rigidly enforced then our death rate would be around 20 to 25 people a year killed on the roads. The unfortunate one or two people killed in the whole of March, perhaps over Easter, would be front-page news.

We know that such low death tolls are possible. Sweden and Britain probably have the toughest enforcement of road laws in the world. Britain, with 35 million vehicles plus millions more visiting from continental Europe, has pushed its death rate to below 2 000 a year, and is still pushing it down. From the licensing statistics of both countries it appears that Britain has around 80 times as many vehicles as Zimbabwe, even when we give a decent estimate of unlicensed Zimbabwean cars, so we should be looking at getting our road kill down to below 25 a year, if we were serious about bad driving.

The police, with totally inadequate resources, largely have to rely on static road blocks. These are good at getting obviously defective vehicles off the roads, ensuring buses and bus drivers are correctly licensed, ensuring that a driver is licensed, and for ensuring that the rest of us have paid the taxes laid down by regulation under an Act of Parliament for having a vehicle on the road or for having a radio in that vehicle.

That is useful but not nearly enough. Defective vehicles cause very few accidents, or rather very few that involve others. Most of the time a defective vehicle just stops and does not go again. This is not to say that it is useless taking them off the road, but that cannot be the main thrust of law enforcement. Bad roads are blamed for accidents, but all a bad road should do is slow traffic down. And enforcing road tax collection does provide hope that one day Zinara will be able to afford to repair roads.

The big killer, the major cause of accidents, is driver error, as the police traffic units must know from the thousands of traffic accident reports they process each month. Few charges are laid for defective vehicle. Driving without due care and attention, driving negligently or driving recklessly so dominate the lists of charges that other causes of accidents are totally swamped.

The police have a handful of speed traps, used sparingly. They have a handful of highway patrol cars, that are so few that most drivers can drive for months without seeing one. It appears that no static road blocks have breathalyser equipment. There are none of those static remote-controlled speed traps so ubiquitous in some countries.

Yet speed radars and breathalysers would pay for themselves very quickly, at least at the beginning of deployment. The fines levied, and if they are too low they can be raised, would pay for this equipment very soon.

Doubters need just imagine how many drivers on the road on a Friday night have had at least two beers, and that is all that is needed to exceed the limit. Radar traps on a main Harare highway usually raise enough to buy a couple of new radar sets in just one session. A few camera loaded speed radars, a few cameras at red lights and the flood of fines would buy enough for a speed radar on every road and a camera at every red light within a month.

These financial calculations are minor, but do answer the question of who will pay for enforcement. With so many bad drivers, Zimbabwe can get the criminals to pay for it, at least for the first year.

Far more important would be getting the criminals off the road. Cancelling a driving licence for a year if you are over the limit, would make both you, and the friends you rely on for lifts for that year, think very seriously about driving after downing a couple of beers again. A nice jail term for driving after your licence was cancelled or suspended would ensure you did not chance that.

Fine income could probably help the police cut speeding drastically. We hear of people boasting that they were caught three times in one day. Well, if they lost their licence on the third time they were caught speeding in one year, they might stop speeding. For that police need a database and simple communication equipment, like a smart phone, at a road block. Punch in the car number and driving licence number and they would know three things: if the car was stolen, if it had a fake licence, and how many criminal offences the driver had committed in the last year or two.

Modern technology is cheap and efficient and phone companies can be ordered to carry police data queries for free.

At the same time as enforcing our laws, we need to campaign for an end to this tolerance. We would all be appalled if someone boasted about driving around with a loaded AK47 stuck out his window firing off pot shots.

Yet we tolerate a person who can hardly stand up driving off from our home after a party. It is a toss up who will kill the most people. Both are dangerous criminals. Once we start seeing those who deliberately break road laws as criminals then perhaps we will all change our ways.

We can make our roads a lot safer, and do so by making the criminals pay.

So let us start now.

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