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Opinions of Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Columnist: Henry Adobor

The needless deaths on our roads, we must act now

People are advised to drive safe to prevent accidents People are advised to drive safe to prevent accidents

Death stalks us on our roads, and one business or leisure trip may be the last trip one ever takes. That should not be, and we must wake up to our responsibilities as a nation. The high incidence of vehicular deaths in Ghana is a national tragedy, and we need to develop a sense of urgency and act accordingly.

The Motor Traffic Division of the Ghana Police Service recently reported that almost 3000 people died, and close to 5,000 were injured due to road accidents in 2021 alone, an increase of nearly 13 per cent over 2020. These numbers just about confirm Ghana’s poor ranking at number 23 out of 183 nations in terms of deaths per 1000 through road accidents.

This is no enviable position to hold. This ranking, confirmed by the Police data, must be a wake-up call to action.

These are staggering numbers, and we must ask why we have this high rate of accidents and deaths on our roads and, more importantly, what we can do about it.

The causes of road accidents are many and are rather well known but mentioning a few here is necessary to set up some suggestions.

The state of our roads may be one of the most important causes of road accidents. Most roads have always been in terrible states. Road construction is terrible, tarred roads are shoddily done, and in a matter of months, we have potholes on them.

Drivers trying to dodge potholes have ended up in front-end collisions with oncoming traffic. In the reverse case, good stretches of roads have become an invitation for over-speeding by some careless drivers.

The second cause of road accidents is driver behaviour. Carelessness on the part of drivers probably accounts for a large percentage of road accidents. Some people drive under the influence of alcohol, and who knows, maybe under the influence of other intoxicants. Of course, some drivers are distracted by the ubiquitous cellular phone.

No matter the cause, driving distracted leads to a failure to pay attention to other vehicles on the road, and the responsibility for accidents in such cases lies in driver behaviour. Even the most careful driver may fall victim to the carelessness on the part of other drivers.

Speeding kills, they say, and we should take that literally. Some people drive as if there is no tomorrow. At the most, we save a few minutes when we over speed, compared to someone driving slowly. However, the danger is that a driver who is speeding would not have enough time to stop when they see an obstacle on the road: whether it’s a pothole or some abandoned vehicle, and that has been the cause of accidents and deaths for many.

Vehicle safety is another cause of road accidents and fatalities. A vehicle is subject to wear and tear and mechanical breakdown, and that is why we must check our tires, brakes, service our vehicles, inspect them periodically to ensure that they are roadworthy. Responsibility for ensuring that our vehicles are roadworthy should not be left to the government/police. It should be the owner’s responsibility. It is us, the occupants of a vehicle, who are in danger first, and second, other passengers and drivers when we operate an unsafe vehicle.

In terms of public transport, it’s the responsibility of owners to ensure that they are putting safe vehicles at the disposal of the travelling public. The government and police also have a big role to play here in terms of ensuring vehicles are roadworthy. That, however, should not absolve owners of personal responsibility. We must take action to reduce this high rate of accidents and deaths on our roads, and I have a few suggestions.

First, there is a need for intensive civic education. I remember vaguely the time Ghana switched to driving on the right-hand side of the road. Everyone would agree that it was a huge success. The level of civic education was massive, and the changeover, I believe, went rather smoothly. It is now time to adopt the same approach, using massive civic education to reduce the number of road accidents and deaths.

A well-designed civic education program sensitizing drivers, transport owners, and the public on how we can reduce deaths on our roads is needed. Churches, civil organizations, and the vibrant private media can be of great use in this. Announcements reminding drivers regularly on the radio about the need to adhere to safety protocols as they drive would help.

Citizen participation is important. For example, citizens can text in the location of dangers on roads to a central data bank for local governments to work on, or at least for announcements to be made on local FM radios to alert drivers to dangers ahead.

Second, and most importantly, we must begin to hold people accountable for road accident deaths. Citizens must start suing responsible parties for road deaths. For example, suing the contractors responsible for constructing the roads, the government for neglecting to construct or maintain roads, or the Minister for Transport as the government’s agent, municipalities for pothole damages, are all ways in which we can get some accountability. I hope our lawyers start looking into this possibility.

In some towns/cities in the US, one can sue if their vehicle gets damaged by a pothole. Indeed, in some cases, you need not even sue but rather follow a simple process by which you can file your complaint, show the cost of repairs, and get reimbursed. There is a deterrent and punitive element in this arrangement, and there can be no better way to get accountability.

Third, we need better road signs as we currently have very poor signage on our roads. For example, you see boldly posted signs on roads in developed countries that tell you the gradient on an approaching stretch, warnings about curves, and the speed limits for possible dangers ahead. Potential road hazards, whether falling rocks or crossing wildlife, are marked.

These clear signs and warnings alert the driver to some of the dangers on the road. The availability of solar panels means that we can install clear warning signs on all our roads, even in areas without electricity.

I believe these are small investments we can make with huge payoffs in terms of saving lives. I think businesses or well-off individuals can “adopt” some of our roads and help pay for some of this signage and warnings. The investment would be worth it.

Fourth, how tenders and contracts for road construction are offered require greater transparency than we have now. How contracts are awarded for road construction remains a mystery, even though I suppose there are well-laid down procedures for public procurement.

There is some speculation, and I have heard enough people tell some version of the same story so often that I am inclined to believe it: that road contracts are often rewards for political/campaign contributions, hardly ever on merit or competence; and contractors need to pay kickbacks for contracts and in the end, are left with little money to start with. That means that quality of work is never an objective or consideration.

One result of awarding contracts as favours, not on merit, is the shoddy and poor quality of work we often see. I would be happy if we offer all road contracts to competent foreign companies, not incompetent local contractors. After all, most of the roads in Lagos were constructed by Julius Berger, a foreign company. At least we shall get value for money.

Fifth, we must take a second look at the types and nature of vehicles we drive. I believe that last year the government proposed banning the importation of so-called “accident cars” but reversed that decision under pressure. Now, there are different types of accidents, and because a car is involved in an accident doesn’t mean it would never be safe to drive. It is those cars that have serious structural damage, including prior deployment of airbags, that may be unsafe. The point is there are degrees of damage to vehicles involved in accidents.

It is those severely damaged vehicles that can never be legally registered again in their home countries and only find their way to developing nations such as ours that pose the greatest danger in the case of an accident. The protection one needs may not be there any longer. The government must take a second look at that issue. I am sympathetic to the business arguments here, but lives are more important.

Finally, the police need to wake up to their responsibilities. Existing laws need to be enforced. Licensing agencies need to ensure that people are proficient enough before they get licensed. Laws against speeding, roadworthiness, and vehicle inspections need to be enforced. I am not talking of the cursory attempts to inspect first aid boxes. Our police have a great responsibility here, and I am sure many do their best under difficult circumstances and with limited resources. However, there is no question in mind that the police can do better when it comes to preventing road accidents.

We as citizens must cooperate with the police and help them work effectively to reduce road accidents and fatalities. For example, vigilant citizens can prevent a drunken driver from taking the wheel or report reckless driving to the police.
We cannot close our eyes to these needless deaths through accidents.

Each life lost is someone’s son, daughter, father, or mother. Premature deaths in our part of the world have terrible consequences for the living. The loss of a provider may mean the end of the dreams for many others.

We should all care about this issue enough that we act, not pretend it doesn’t matter because a lot of these road accidents are preventable. We can’t leave this to the government alone. We as citizens must be active participants, indeed, take the lead on this issue.

My sympathies to those who have lost dear ones to road accidents. Please drive carefully, and may all your road trips be safe ones.