End Culture of Impunity to Ensure Road Safety [opinion]

Col Kizza Besigye’s excellent article in The Observer on the causes and remedies of the carnage on our roads should start and sustain a debate on this important subject and I would like to make some contribution towards that debate.

First, it is not enough to have good policies. There are many excellent policy documents in Uganda, based on years of work by the Uganda Road Safety Council and other bodies. But unless we turn these policies into laws with teeth, all we are doing is shadow-boxing.

I wish to suggest that the culture of non-compliance with laws is a major contributor to the carnage on our roads. Many times, I have dutifully stuck to my lane in heavy traffic, only to see some vehicles driving past me and blocking oncoming traffic. As they struggle to re-enter the lane they should have stuck to in the first place, they create a long jam, delaying everybody in the process. Many accidents are due to such behaviour.

When one drives on our highways, say the road to Gulu, Mbarara or Malaba, they find trucks stuck along the road, due to an accident or mechanical faults. These vehicles obstruct the highways for days and even weeks. The owners only instruct the drivers and their helpers to make a fire on the road and guard the cargo. In many cases, the police is hired to stand guard. Most of them do not have reflectors, and even if they did, if they are stuck around a bend, an unsuspecting driver would simply ram into the stationary truck.

Then we have the boda bodas. Many of these think traffic laws do not apply to them. They cut on all sides of traffic flow! Then there are the endless lines of taxis, crisscrossing lanes and stopping abruptly, without indicators, to pick and drop passengers. Taxis should have designated stops.

The question is: why do our drivers behave with utter disregard of the law? The answer is simple. Because they can. When Bill Clinton was asked why he carried out his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky and then lied about it, his answer was simple: “Because I could”. When people think they can do something and get away with it, the temptation to act with impunity becomes almost irresistible.

So, apart from all the valid issues raised in Col Besigye’s article, we have to add the issue of impunity of our road-users. Our law enforcement officers, indeed an overworked, poorly-trained, harassed and underpaid lot, should make it risky for anyone to dare violate traffic rules.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, traffic police are paid a percentage of the fines they impose on traffic offenders. This is a great motivation. Here in Uganda, I hear that many drivers who receive tickets from police simply tear up the piece of paper and carry on, without paying the fine imposed. I suggest that records of all offending vehicles should be shared centrally with insurance companies.

These can always check from a central database whether any vehicle seeking insurance cover has an unpaid fine. Those found with unpaid fines should not be insured. That, in itself, would expose them to arrest for failure to have third-party insurance. Any company that insures a defaulter should be penalised.

Having a no-nonsense leadership also helps. Look at Rwanda. Also, the notorious indiscipline on the streets of Lagos ceased, almost as if by magic, when Gen Murtala Mohammed took power and announced that he wanted to see order. Indeed there was order, and the chaos on Lagos streets disappeared.

The Judiciary should step in too. The chief justice should issue directives creating makeshift traffic courts along our roads, so that instant justice can be meted out to traffic offenders. A roadside court in a tent is still a court. A seventy-two-hour limit should be imposed on trucks and other vehicles that clog our highways. After that time, the state should step in and tow the vehicles away and pass on the cost, plus a fine for violation, to the vehicle owner.

Towed vehicles should be taken to central places, and if, after three months, the owners have not showed up to pay, such vehicles should be auctioned. Roads should have speed limits, clearly displayed by signage, and offenders should face the law. Areas which have schools, hospitals, and other busy areas should be demarcated as low-speed areas. Roadside parking should be regulated with time limits.

There is a narrow road below Acacia [John Babiiha] avenue which can take only two vehicles. Some people have made it a habit to park along that road, making it impossible for vehicles to move freely. Yet, that is the road parents use to take and pick their children from the nearby Kabojja Junior School.

Ultimately, we cannot just throw our hands in the air in resignation and say, “this is Uganda”! We have to do something to change the culture of impunity which fuels traffic offences, corruption, the laxity of our public officials and even the indifference to consumer rights by private service providers.

We also have to recognise the hierarchy of road users and provide for all categories to enjoy the use of our roads. On our roads, the bigger your vehicle, the more right of way you enjoy. Pedestrians are at the mercy of those driving and riding. But if we are a country where we all are equal before the law, why should a provision not be made for pedestrians?

The author is the president general of the Democratic Party.

Source : The Observer

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