Do Ghanaians have willpower to tackle epidemic of road accidents?

Wed, 27 Apr 2016 Source: Wilson, Kwesi

On Thursday, one of the vehicles in Ghanaian President John Mahama's convoy was involved in an accident, while touring the Eastern Region. Edward Omane Boamah, communications minister, confirmed the accident on Adom FM's Morning Show, 'Dwaso Nsem' on Friday. This makes it abundantly clear that no one is insulated from this nemesis of ours. Fortunately, no one died in this one. Others, though, haven't been so lucky. In February, for example, 71 people died when a bus traveling from Kumasi to Tamale collided with a cargo truck. Who is to blame for such carnage in Ghana?

Road accidents happen everywhere, but perhaps not at the rate they occur in Ghana. And the best antidote the Ghana government has come up with is to blame commercial drivers. Nobody has raised the question of what role the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority's (DVLA) plays in creating the situation. Who authorized all those drivers on the roads? Who handed them their driver licenses? Who screened vehicles and deemed them fit to be on the roads? And who is not enforcing the traffic rules? How come no one is asking for accountability?

By sheer happenstance, I was in Ghana in June 2015 when commercial drivers decided to strike in protest a new policy requiring a stringent screening test for drivers seeking licenses. The minister for transportation rolled out the policy without seemingly consulting commercial drivers' unions. I didn't know any of these was going on and only found out when a simple task of hailing a cab became tedious. One eventually scooped me after several rejected my call, tooted their horns and flew past me.

"We dey for strike," he managed to say. "But mek we go."

I hopped in and started probing him to find out why they were striking. He said he'd never stepped into a classroom in his life. Driving is his only profession. And now DVLA wants him to go take a test on a touchscreen computer in a language he barely understands (English). He can't read and write. Right away, I knew he bribed his way to a driver license. And there are many more like him. The "buying" of both private and commercial driver licenses is common practice in Ghana. You couple that with poor traffic law enforcement and you have recipe for anarchy on the roads.

But here is what the transportation minister should have done. The starting point for crafting all policies should pass this test: Is it appropriate and is it effective? It would have been more appropriate for authorities to bring all commercial drivers unions to the table and ask for their input in addressing the high rate of road accidents.

The government should also research best practices in the world. Has any government or entity ever surmounted a similar problem, and if so, how? For instance, the government in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal Province addressed the problems of drinking and driving by launching a program called ASIPHEPHE (Let's be Safe). It combined a public education element based on dramatic television advertising (adapted from the Australian emotional advertisements) with strong enforcement and new enforcement technologies. It resulted in improved compliance and less public criticisms of police "revenue raising". In the 2-year period following the campaign there was a 35 percent reduction in road fatalities in the province compared with 17 per cent for the rest of the country.

Perhaps, those commercial drivers who can't read and write in English, could attend seminars and training sessions with an oral and practical road skills test at the end of it, rather than requiring them to take tests on an intimidating computer. I bet that would be much more effective than keeping the status quo in place or its purported replacement. This new test, overseen by the same DVLA employees, would only lead higher going rate for bribes and extortion.

There is also something to say about road worthiness of cars. Several cars on the highways and roads in Ghana are not fit to be on there. The list is long but we have not set this issue as a national agenda. It does not even come up in political campaigns and discourse yet we all know at least one of two people whose lives have been taken by road accident. Are we ready to overcome this nemesis? For now, it does not look so.

Columnist: Wilson, Kwesi