Fixing Road Accidents in Malawi: Good Intentions, Bad Solutions
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Our motoring problems have sworn a stubborn persistence, growing every day and claiming more Malawian lives that ought not be lost. The tragic death of Mr. Gausi on Kamuzu Procession Road, on a police motorbike that led Bakili Muluzi’s presidential convoy, was avoidable if Mr. Muluzi himself paid attention to the potholes emerging on our roads. The nine (9) police officers we buried in December 2009, again on presidential motorcade duty, could probably have been saved. All the thousands of lives we lose every year to traffic accidents. And now the 16 officers' lives that sublimed before our very eyes in Luwawa have shown that the dangers of motoring in Malawi have yet to subside, and have indiscriminately hit the core as much as they terrorize the rest of us.
News of the revised penalties associated with motoring in Malawi – now, apparently, withdrawn – reverberated with sharp alarm as the government was again caught in another wave of misjudgment around an issue whose solutions need not treat the symptoms. To quickly take note, this is not the first time government is found in a myopic corner, shying away from elaborating proper and once-and-for-all redress of the road accident situation. Several times (paging Akweni here for, in the not so distant past, her noise on this while Minister of Information), the solutions proposed by government have pointed fingers at motorists rather than the endemic failures of our road traffic system. One of the most targeted have, obviously, been minibus operators, who have now resorted to taking to the streets every time their profits are at threat of a squeeze due to new impositions of carrier restrictions. These demonstrations symbolize the unilateral focus of some policy interventions for which they have frequently felt victimized.
In light of the institution of stiffer penalties for traffic management in the country, and the responsibilities of motorists to keep all road users safe, the plethora of issues lying underneath the carpet needs proper dusting and bringing them to public dialogue. This website proposes, with urgency, that the charge of government must primarily encompass the production of responsible drivers in Malawi.
This requires the correction of the driver training program, which remains inadequate in many ways. The most conspicuous is its heavy skewness towards on-the-road training than the understanding of the Highway Code. In fact, at present, the farthest the Highway Code exam goes is testing a candidate's expertise on a few select road signs. Although the Road Traffic Act (1997) has undergone a few major amendments in 2010 and 2014, Malawi still uses an ancient Highway Code whose accessibility has diminished over the years (unlike Uganda, for example, whose Code is readily available online.) Sarah Nayeja, in her article of 15 May 2017, expressly shared the agony of driving in modern Malawi, an important reflection of the dearth of understanding of motoring rules to not only making successful travel, but to also accommodating all road users with a semblance of efficient demeanor.
It is fascinating how, first of all, learner drivers remain more tormented by the thought of an examiner sitting next to them on the road than they are about sucking at the theory. Second of all is the reflection of Ms. Nayeja’s plight for Malawians’ spontaneous inclination to mediocrity. With some regret, additional to this characterization is our tendency to opt for shortsightedness, where a license obtained with the most ease is preferred than to undergo the grueling task of learning and understanding. Our license issuance system does not detect these anomalies, which are preyed on by rent-seeking examiners who receive ‘incentives’ from driving schools to certify learner drivers and bestow on them the responsibility to make complex, mature, decisions on the road.
The challenge of vehicle roadworthiness certification is not farther from the malaise in motoring than that of limited driver training. Much as the responsibility for equipment-related accidents is placed on vehicle owners, we usually overlook the behind-the-scenes role that the Road Traffic Directorate plays while certifying cars that are a danger every time their engines crank to life. Engine health, seldom checked by the Directorate or the valiant stewards of law enforcement that wave cars on the roads to collect levies for government, usually accompanied by solicitation for a quick spot salary, requires new regulation with respect to the garages that certify their roadworthiness. And these outlets of motor services need to be held accountable to a great degree, with the government legally exerting itself in deliberating grave situations.
It is hardly inadequate to look at driver training and vehicle roadworthiness as the only parameters on which policy and regulation are to be measured, without considering the state of roads. While we all understand the limitations of a developing country in meeting the adequate standards of roads, we need to recognize its introduction of avoidable health-related costs which cause more strain on the feeble health sector budget in treating victims of road accidents. As pointed out above, the case of Mr. Muluzi’s motorcade would not have been a statistic worth mentioning today. But road accidents cause far-reaching economic impacts over the obvious social damage they cause, including funeral costs that, in Malawi, majorly depend on family and well-wishers. We also seldom consider the funeral costs of the recent Malawi Defence Forces tragedy as having an impact on the national defence budget if multiples of such incidents were to occur. Which they do. This often comes in addition to the rehabilitation of cars and road equipment.
The evaluation of the various dimensions of traffic system regulation, some of which we have elaborated above, tells us there is more that needs to be done by our government before it points fingers at road users and vehicle operators. Apart from the difficult exercise of strengthening the system of licensing drivers and vehicles, it must look into the rampant corruption that lubricates the passing of less than proficient motorists, and vehicles that remain in poor health. Our road traffic system must rid itself of very obvious misconduct such as the very compelling Times Group’s investigation revealed in December 2015 (can be accessed here.)
And there are more radical approaches too. People and government must meet somewhere in the middle. And it is an important show of mutual accountability on the part of government to sway legislation towards exploration of factors that are a direct result of government’s incompetence before raising a finger on a motorist or road user. These inefficiencies require to be punishable on the part of individual perpetrators and/or on the system.
Where a tarmac road emerges, that is the result of Malawians who will have toiled to bring forth this road via the taxes they entrust the government with. In addition, there is an inalienable levy on our fuel to maintain these roads. Therefore, it is about time we started reinforcing the notion that a tarmac road with potholes is not the road we paid for - and so government must be brought to book for it.
And where a motor examiner makes ends meet via rents they demand from desperate and/or anxious learner drivers and motorists, we need to realize how this act creates a road-related death, sooner or later.