The enemy within – Driving like crazy

Potholes might be the nuisance of the day but unsafe driving kills thousands of Ugandans every year. And we all drive a little crazy sometimes.

All drivers know the feeling. That white-knuckle sensation behind the wheel of “that was close!” or “what was that guy thinking?” A large, oncoming SUV swerves into your lane to pass a slower car and you slam your brakes. An overloaded matatu tries to overtake you through a blind corner and forces you onto the shoulder.

The situation passes and you made it. You pull your car back onto the road and continue on your way. Like it or not, driving has become a full-contact sport.

While everybody these days seems to be complaining about potholes, no one seems to complain about crazy and outright deadly driving habits exhibited on Ugandan roads.

According to Police statistics, Uganda has the highest number of people dying in road accidents in the Great Lakes region, which includes Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. A report presented to Parliament recently suggests that the deaths have been rising steadily, from 778 in 1990 to 2,034 in 2004, while road accidents rose to 19,528 in 2006 from 5,674 in 1990.

Over 333 billion shillings is estimated as the cost of accidents in the country annually—cost of vehicles, medical bills and loss of income and property.

Potholes, on the other hand, are the direct result of governmental incompetence, or of corruption, or of shoddy workmanship. Blame can therefore easily be passed off.

So why the silence? One theory is that no one complains about it because everyone does it. When travelling in a taxi or on a boda boda and your driver or rider zigzags through traffic you don’t complain because you get to your destination faster. Or when stuck behind a slow-moving truck on your way to Entebbe, you too might try to pass him in an unsafe manner. You have somewhere to be and the sooner you get there the better.

Everyone does it. Government ministers with their military escorts, large white SUVs with an acronym of letters printed on the side door, matatu drivers, trailers and mothers whose kids are late for school. Not to mention the guy who speeds around town in that orange sports car.

Other theories include lack of enforcement, poor road conditions or inexperienced drivers. The Parliamentary Committee on Physical Infrastructure recently noted that the causes of road accidents are reckless driving, careless pedestrians, overloading, driver error, use of mobile telephones as people drive and poor road signs.

But these statistics overlook the psychological aspect of driving a car: Normally calm Ugandans, upon getting behind the wheel of a car transform into raving lunatics.

The real cost

Statistics from Police traffic department indicate that last year there were 12,446 accidents in Kampala Metropolitan of which 565 were fatal, 4,725 serious and 7,156 minor in nature. Kampala Metropolitan covers Kampala, Wakiso, Mukono and Entebbe areas.

Out of the 565 fatal accidents that occurred, there were 625 deaths that included 320 pedestrians, 136 motorcyclists, 98 passengers, 41 pedal cyclists and 30 drivers. A total of 5,282 people sustained serious injuries either in form of broken legs or arms or deep cuts and internal body organ damage.

Since January to May this year, 4,907 accidents have been recorded in Kampala Metropolitan with 311 deaths of which there were 159 pedestrians, 71 motorcyclists, 46 passengers, 24 pedal cyclists and nine drivers.

Kampala’s Regional Traffic Officer Lawrence Nuwabine cites three major causes of road accidents in Uganda and these are: driver behaviour while on the road, vehicles’ mechanical condition, and the nature and condition of the roads.

But, Nuwabine says, 80 per cent of accidents are due to driver behaviour. “If you are a driver and you decide to over speed, you will. If you decide to drink alcohol and drive, you will. When one decides to neglect the road signs and not be mindful of other road users, then accidents are bound to occur.”

He says that the only way to reduce road accidents is encourage behaviour change among the drivers and teaching passengers their rights. “We now have traffic toll free hotlines where one can call and report any reckless driver (0800199099) and every individual must mind about his or her own safety. You would rather reach late but safe,” Nuwabine emphasized.

Maximizing profit

One person once told me (figures may not be accurate) that Kampala was designed for 30,000 cars, and now there are more than 300,000. And this pressure on the system leads to jams, which lead to stress, which can lead to accidents.

Kabogoza Dick, a boda boda rider admits to driving recklessly stating that he is expected to return the bike to its owner every evening with 10,000 shillings.

“If I don’t scavenge around for passengers and wait at one point how will I raise this amount?” he asked.
He admitted that crossing in between vehicles from one side to another and riding along pavements all in the quest for meeting the owner’s take for the day and getting his bonus. The faster he drives, the more money to be made.

Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers’ Association (UTODA) Kampala Vice Chairman Chris Sengooba says they have come up with several solutions to the crazy drivers within the association.

“We have had a number of seminars for our drivers where we train them on being respectful of other road users and avoid over speeding,” he said, adding that they also discourage drunk driving and advise their drivers to respect their passengers.

The rest of us

The psychology of driving is an up-and-coming research field. In his riveting book “Traffic – Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)”, Tom Vanderbilt states that driving is an incredible difficult task that many of us take much too lightly.

“For those of us who are not brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do,” he writes.
Vanderbilt sites numerous studies which look into why people drive in an unsafe manner. While there are countless explanations, one study compared the amount of traffic deaths in a country to their ranking in terms of corruption (Uganda correlates almost perfectly).

“When there is less respect for the law,” writes Vanderbilt, “there is a lesser cost (or greater gain) from not following it”.

“Non-professional” drivers admit to joining the craze because they are in a rush and because everybody else is doing it. Edward Mukama, a businessman in Kikuubo regrets blocking out someone on the road when he should have given way arguing that most of the time he is mentally tired because of work and because he drives mostly morning and evenings through the worst of Kampala traffic.

Truth is we all feel and act differently behind the wheel. It is you against them. Pass or be passed. Or you could just sit and wait patiently for an opening.

And while we may be stuck on the roads with hundreds or even thousands of other drivers, it is hard to see the consequences of our actions.

As Vanderbilt puts it: “We see things only through our own windscreens.”

By Savio Kyambadde