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Bad minibus drivers

Why fines and jail time don’t change their behavior

| Festival Godwin Boateng | Millions of people in Africa’s cities rely on public transport to get around. Minibuses are especially common, whether you’re in Kampala, Accra, Dar es Salaam, Lagos or Nairobi. In Accra, the ubiquitous minibuses are known as tro-tro, in Dar es Salaam as daladalas, in Lagos as danfos and in Nairobi as matatus.

These vehicles offer flexible, generally affordable services. They also, unfortunately, contribute significantly to the continent’s well documented road safety problems.

In Kenya’s capital city Nairobi, it is estimated that minibus crashes account for some 95% of road deaths. In Ghana, accidents involving tro-tro vehicles killed 300 and injured nearly 2,000 people in the first quarter of 2019.

This stands to reason, since minibuses carry numerous passengers and so there’s a risk of higher fatalities in a crash. Many minibus drivers often speed and overtake recklessly. They are also likely to spend long hours behind the wheel. Authorities often accuse them of “indiscipline”. Governments impose hefty fines and threaten long prison sentences, insisting this will make Africa’s roads safer.

But why do minibus drivers operate so recklessly? I set out to answer this question, focusing on tro-tro drivers in Ghana.

My research shows how a range of structural factors including exploitative labour relations between car owners and drivers and police corruption compel and solicit dangerous driving behaviour. Given this, I argue that fines and prison sentences are not suited for inducing safer driving behaviour among tro-tro drivers. These interventions don’t tackle the range of political-economic causes, motivations and constraints that result in dangerous driving.

Hopefully, these findings can contribute to developing better policies that make roads safer in Ghana and other African countries.

A daily struggle

As in most other African countries, Ghana’s tro-tro industry emerged from the lack of organised public transport. Tro-tros use just about 30% of Ghana’s road space, but convey over 70% of person-trips in the country.

The industry is organised around a target system. The driver, almost always a man, and his assistant – Ghanaians call them “mates” – operate the bus as a sort of daily franchise. In return the owner demands a daily fee, popularly called “sales”. The driver and the mate take home what remains once the “sales” target is reached. They also have to pay for the day’s fuel; the car owner doesn’t contribute to this.

Research has shown that tro-tro owners do well, financially, from this arrangement. They are able to impose high “sales” because, as with other African countries, unemployment is high in Ghana. The passenger transport sector, therefore, attracts plenty of young people looking for work. The oversupply of job-seekers tilts the balance of power in favour of vehicle owners.

In Tanzania, where a similar set-up exists, one driver complained in a study that: “(Bus owners) can ask you whatever (daily sales or fees) they want and you have to accept it”.

Studies have shown that minibus drivers in other parts of Africa face similar challenges.

The power imbalance between the drivers and car owners and the lack of labour protection condemn the drivers to great occupational uncertainty, extremely harsh working conditions and meagre returns.

They are also frequently harassed by corrupt police officers who use threats of arrest to extort bribes.

The drivers can make enough revenue to cover operational costs and police bribes and pay their owners, themselves and their mates only by increasing the number of trips or passengers per trip. This compels them to drive for long hours, resort to dangerous overtaking and overloading and drive at dangerously high speeds.

This shows that dangerous driving by tro-tro drivers is connected to the precarious conditions associated with their work systems and the broader commercial passenger transport industry in which they operate.

This, however, is not how the Ghanaian public, media, police, road safety practitioners and researchers frame and explain the tro-tro safety problem in the country.

They often blame the problems on the drivers’ personal indiscipline and unruliness. This has legitimised punitive action against the drivers marked by police harassment and declaration of ‘wars’ on them. In turn, this has led to frequent physical abuse as well as the imposition of long prison sentences and hefty fines on them.

Changing systems

It has been shown that tro-tro drivers in Ghana operate within a precarious work climate marked by cut-throat competition; low wages; job insecurity; non-negotiable daily fees by car owners and harassment from corrupt police officers. These numerous financial and other demands are what push the drivers to undertake the dangerous driving behaviour that earn them public opprobrium.

Thus, contrary to popular opinion, tro-tro divers in Ghana drive dangerously not because they are inherently bad or morally bankrupt people, but because their work systems and conditions compel or incentivise them to do so.

This analysis is not intended to shield any drivers from personal responsibility or accountability. The point, simply, is that much of their dangerous behaviour is driven by systems and structures beyond their control.

This means that targeting the drivers themselves won’t stop the behaviour. What need addressing are the work-related and system-level constraints they operate under.

For instance, authorities need to address structural unemployment and police corruption. They need to create and enforce labour protection policies that improve commercial passenger drivers’ working conditions. Interventions like these could yield widespread and sustainable road safety benefits – far more than is achieved by the present public policy of declaring ‘wars’ on the drivers.

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Festival Godwin Boateng is Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Sustainable Urban Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University

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