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Behind surge in road crashes on Uganda’s highways

Police records 2000 road accidents and over 250 dead in three months

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | In a shocking wave of road crash events, a Spanish photojournalist, a Swedish diplomat and a young lady looking forward to her wedding have all perished on Uganda’s roads in recent days, raising more concern about the safety of the country’s highways.

On March 07, Sadurni Carrasco Sumaya, a Kampala-based Spanish freelance journalist died alongside her  Ugandan driver, Thomas Mugisha, in a road crash incident in the central Ugandan district of Kiryandongo along the Kampala-Gulu Highway. Police said Carrasco and her driver died on the spot after their car collided head-on with a Fuso truck.

On March 13, as the week was winding up, the mood within the diplomatic community in Kampala turned somber as news came in announcing the sudden death of Swedish diplomat, Urlika Lindberg Ljabasaukas and a Ugandan national, who perished in a grisly road crash at Magamaga in Mayuge District along the Jinja-Iganga-Tororo Highway in eastern Uganda.

Police said the two died on the spot when their vehicle collided with a truck. According to the report, Ljabasaukas’ driver was attempting to overtake another vehicle but on noticing an oncoming heavy duty truck, a Fuso, her driver swerved off the road.

“The Pajero (the car carrying the diplomat) was trying to overtake and swerved off the road to dodge an oncoming Fuso heading to Iganga so they collided head-on,” said Diana Nandaula, the Busoga East Police spokesperson.

A day earlier, on March 12, three young women including one who was just a week away from her wedding perished in another road crash along the Entebbe Expressway that left their car mangled. Reports said the bride-to-be and her friends were returning from a “bridal shower” when their car crashed along the brand new expressway.

There was no let off on the highways as police recorded another road crash in the early morning hours of March 14. This time, two people were killed on the spot and 20 passengers were critically injured following a head-on collision involving a bus belonging to the Baby Coach Company and a truck in Luweero District along the Kampala-Gulu highway.

A survivor of the crash who was a passenger on the bus commuting from the northwestern Uganda city of Arua heading to Kampala said the truck driver had lost control and rammed into the bus.

‘Roads are killing more young men’

Police say, since the beginning of this year, they have registered over 2,000 road crash incidents, killing at least 250 while thousands have escaped with life-altering injuries nationwide.

According to the Road Safety Performance Review Report for Uganda which was published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in 2018, at least ten people die on Uganda’s roads every day.

In December, last year, the Deputy Director, Traffic and Road Safety in the Uganda Police, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Phillip Acaye, told participants during the launch of the annual  Road Safety Week that over the last five years, at least 3,500 people have died on Ugandan roads every year, while close to 10,000 have narrowly escaped with severe injuries.

Even in 2020— a year which saw the economy shut down for at least four months to contain the COVID-19 pandemic— 3,633 people were killed in road crashes in Uganda. That figure saw an increase from the one posted in 2018 and 2019 when at least 3,194 and 3,407 people respectively were killed in road crashes, according to police data.

Police reports show that in each of the last five years, young men have been the most affected. For instance in 2020, 80% (2,945) of people who died in road crashes were men. More worryingly, 75% of those killed on the roads were under 45 years old.

People who perished in road crashes and were below 18 years were 628 (382 male and 246 female), those aged 18-24 were 536 (470 male and 66 male), those aged 25-34 were 921 (803 male and 118 female) while those aged 35-44 were 664 (570 male and 94 female).

Meanwhile those who died and were above 55 years old were 351. Still, the majority were men (257) compared with 94 female. Acaye said the majority of people dying on Uganda’s roads are young people many of whom are school-going kids and young adults beginning life.

“They are young, up and about while those above 75 years are not so much on the road,” he said. With regards to the category of road users who perished, Ugandan roads were more unforgiving to pedestrians (34%) followed by motorcyclists (5%) and drivers (5%).

Going by the number of road crashes and deaths so far registered, this year is likely to be harsher to road users unless measures are taken to ensure strict observance of traffic rules and vehicle maintenance.

Narrow roads narrative

Motorists insist the country’s roads are too narrow while police blames human errors. But as arguments fly back and forth, the spate of deaths on Uganda’s roads is impacting individuals, families and even the economy.

Experts say the causes of road traffic crashes are usually behavioural; including speeding, drunk driving, lack of consideration for other road users, driving while speaking on phone, wrongful overtaking, poor mechanical condition of vehicles and lack of driving skills.

Other factors for the rising trends of road crashes in the country include; rapid urbanization, poor safety standards, lack of enforcement and people driving distracted or fatigued. But also, inadequate road infrastructure has been identified as having the least contribution to road accidents.

James Katunguka, the senior road safety officer in the Ministry of Works and Transport told journalists undergoing road safety reporting last December that Ugandan roads are actually not narrow. He said the roads are actually built based on standard design.

Allan Ssempebwa, the Spokesperson of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) also told The Independent on March 17 that contrary to the notion peddled by motorists, Ugandan highways are actually “built to standard.” He dismissed the claim that the roads are narrow.

“All we just have to do is tame our habits while on the road,” he said, adding that speeding remains a big challenge on Uganda’s roads.  Ssempebwa said even when the road markings are in place to offer guidance; motorists tend to disregard them, as others deliberately drive recklessly.

“They do so with no regard for road signage and other road users. There is clear signage showing the speed limit is 20km/hr as you join the toll road but someone disregards this and drives at 80km/hour,” he said.

However, back in 2016, Allen Kagina, the executive director of UNRA admitted that the Bombo-Kafu road (Kampala-Gulu highway) was narrow because they did renovation basing on old designs due to lack of funds.

Kagina, who was responding to a petition by the Regional Lorry Drivers and Transporters Association and the Uganda Bus Allied Association, said that indeed some narrow roads were causing road crashes especially on highways.

Road crash investigations lacking

However, Sam Bambaza, the executive director of Hope for Victims of Traffic Accidents (HOVITA), a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing road deaths and injuries in Uganda told The Independent on March 16 that one of the emerging challenges when it comes to curbing road carnage in the country is a lack of thorough investigations into the crashes.

“We never get to know the cause of the road crashes. We, for instance, don’t know if these crashes are as a result of road design, tyres, fatigue, or user behaviour?  Was the driver on the phone before the road crash?”

Bambaza says police reports cannot help the current situation as they (police) are always interested in the criminal aspect of road crashes. He says an independent agency, and not the police, is needed to investigate road crash events on Uganda’s roads.

“If, for instance, it is found that poor road design is behind road crashes along a particular highway, then UNRA would be asked to fix the issue,” he said. “As long as we don’t do thorough investigations, road crashes are not about to stop happening on our roads.”

“(In the case of buses or coaches) they  are designed to drive on dedicated lanes for hundreds of kilometres without any sudden interruption but what happens is that the drivers are dealing with bodabodas, cyclists and pedestrians yet the buses cannot brake easily.”

“They end up crashing,” he said.

Dr. Godfrey Mwesige, a traffic engineering and road safety expert who also lectures in the Department of Construction Economics and Management at Makerere University’s College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology said in 2018 that many of the road crashes on Uganda’s highways can be attributed to poor road design.

Using data collected on road crashes along the Northeastern Road Corridor—a 340km stretch that begins on the Uganda-Kenya border at Malaba in eastern Uganda, meandering northeastwards through Tororo, Mbale, Soroti up to Kamdini Corner, Dr. Mwesige and his team found a high frequency of accidents involving motor cycles at or close to trading centres, especially on the Tororo-Mbale-Soroti sections.

Mwesige said his team had identified 98 black spots, 28 of them in trading centres along the corridor—meaning that for a stretch of 340km, there is a black spot for every 3.5km. He said one of the challenges road designers are facing in Uganda is the ever mushrooming illegal private property near the highways.

“We have sections where schools are built in a high speed section of the highways yet the schools have no perimeter fences and school children just run into the roads eventually getting knocked.”

Mwesige said dealing with safety design on Ugandan roads is similar to what doctors do to fight disease outbreaks;identifying patterns and fixing the anomalies.

“Currently anything being done on safety is based on guesswork,” he said, “There is need for UNRA to develop a proper accident data collection and storage mechanism as part safety appraisal of the designs and maintenance.”

Reduce speed limit

Perhaps, in an attempt to look for a long lasting solution to the senseless deaths on Uganda’s roads, Alex Ruhunda, the MP for Fort Portal Central Division in western Uganda, moved a motion in Parliament in December, last year, urging the government to strengthen efforts for promoting road safety countrywide.

Ruhunda suggested that the government increases funding for road safety programmes and activities especially the Department of Traffic and Road Safety in the Ministry of Works and Transport and the Directorate of Traffic Police.

He said these two departments should also get more human resources and modern equipment as well as consider reducing the speed limit for urban areas, especially the highly built-up areas and school zones from 50km/hr to 30km/hr.

Ruhunda also suggested a reduction in blood alcohol content from the current 0.08mg/100ml to 0.05mg/100ml for the general drivers and 0.02mg/100ml for young and novice drivers and commercial drivers.

Similarly, the Road Safety Advocacy Coalition Uganda (ROSACU) recently recommended that the Minister of Works and Transport “urgently enact speed regulations under the Roads Act, 2019.”

“The Coalition suggests the government considers putting in place interim policy solutions asthe road safety stakeholders await the completion of the updated speed limit regulations,” the non-profit organisation noted in its brief.

Indeed, the Minister of Works and Transport, Gen. Edward Katumba Wamala, has in the past agreed that a 5% reduction in speed by motorists would reduce fatalities on the roads by 30%.

Wamala said speeding makes driving more dangerous because it increases the likelihood that a driver will lose control of the vehicle. He said speeding not only reduces a vehicle’s ability to brake, a situation which endangers the lives of motor vehicle occupants, cyclists and the pedestrians.


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