Road accidents in Sierra Leone is no longer newsworthy as many of our citizens are resigned to the notion that it is an inevitability or an ‘Act of God’. But why should this be the case? Having written several articles about the causes of road accidents, the need for proper enforcement, and enhanced communication by the various MDAs to educate the public about the risk associated with speeding, overloading and substance abuse especially by Okada riders from the comfort of my home in the UK, I decided to take the challenge and travel home to have a first-hand experience of the situation on the ground in Freetown. Ironically, my visit is to coincide with the commemoration of UN Global Road Safety Week (8 – 14 May 2017). Not wanting to sound like the Prophet of Doom I must confess that we need a complete overhaul of the institutions responsible for road safety in Sierra Leone and many other challenges that include the finance for Road Safety; the existing system of collaboration between the agencies responsible for road safety and the attitude and behaviour of all road users. Below are some of my observations based on my interaction with agencies and field observations.
The enforcement of traffic rules and regulations in Freetown and indeed Sierra Leone is shared between the Sierra Leone Traffic Police and the Traffic Corps of the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority. For the purpose of this article, I am limiting my observation to my interaction with the Sierra Leone Police Executive Management Board (EMB). I must start by commending the Acting Director of the Sierra Leone Police Traffic Management and Road Safety Department (TMRSD) for his leadership and understanding of the challenges facing the force in maintaining law and order. I was presented with an up-to-date report with accurate but grim statistics about road accidents in Sierra Leone. It is also worth noting that he has a well thought out plan to improve the Traffic Department but is constrained by lack of resources. The TMRSD in its last annual report for the year 2016, stressed the need for partnership among all stakeholders responsible for road safety including the private sector, civil society and every citizen in the country. The report made a number of recommendations, chief among which are;
• Enhancing traffic police deployment along highways to ensure high visibility, safety and security of all road users
• Sensitization of the public on road safety and security through road safety campaigns
• Establishment of joint coordination teams comprising of Police, SLRSA, Indigenous Transport Owners, Drivers Union, Bike Riders Union, Passenger Protection Groups and the Media to ensure motorists comply with traffic regulations
• Conduct operations targeting motorists who violate traffic regulations that include disobeying traffic road signs, drunk driving and reckless/dangerous driving
• Organising training for traffic officers to build capacity to handle ever increasing challenges.
The Traffic Department also reported that last year a total of Le 1.35 billion was disbursed to the consolidated revenue fund from court fines for traffic violation. If only some of this revenue was plod back to the Traffic Department to provide much needed equipment, logistics and support for operational staff then there is likelihood that we will begin to see changes in the effective regulation and enforcement of driving standards and road user behaviour.
THE HUMAN FACTOR -ROAD USER BEHAVIOUR
There is always the tendency for us to blame the government for all things that is bad in our society including the ever-increasing rates of deaths and injuries on our roads. However, the responsibility for road safety lies with every citizen in the country. In Freetown for example, defensive driving means defend your lane – meaning that the doctrine of the ‘right of way’ does not exist. Every driver thinks that they are more important or rather have more right to the road than the other. Of particular significance are drivers using vehicles with government/NGO/Diplomatic number plates who are the bully boys on the road always in a hurry and often driving on the wrong side of the road. The poor Traffic Police Officer is powerless because stopping them will probably lead to a reprimand by their bosses – the protectors of these big ‘Alejos’. Unless and until we maintain the doctrine that ‘no one is above the law’ then I am afraid that the attitude and behaviour of these traffic violators will continue unabated.
The ordinary citizen is not absolved from blame. Let me start with the users of commercial motorbikes (Okadas). I have seen mothers carrying two or three children on a single okada to save time and cost. They are aware of the risks but choose to take the chance – they themselves are abetting the illegal operation of this means of transport. We need more public education and awareness. The riders are also a law unto themselves not wearing helmets and riding as if they are competing in the Motor GP. This is compounded by the fact that a significant percentage of these riders use enhancement such as pega packs (alcohol) and drugs ranging from the inhaling type to ones that are swallowed.
THE NEED FOR A LEADERSHIP AND COMMITMENT
As I indicated earlier, the main reason for my mission was to support the government and institutions responsible for road safety to commemorate the UN Global Week for Road Safety. I have sacrificed my time and resources to travel to Sierra Leone to contribute to plans for improving road traffic management and enforcement but the response from the authorities leave a lot to be desired. For example, the Road Maintenance Fund Administration (RMFA) that receives close to US$ 30 million annually from fuel levy are of the view that promoting road safety is no business of theirs and there is no one to hold them to account. The private sector on the other hand are willing to contribute to the program but have no faith in the responsible institutions to make a difference due to their lack of commitment. We seem to be relying on donors to do everything for us even though we have the resources to meet our global commitment to the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety that requires Member States to reduce road deaths by 50% by the year 2020. We don’t even have a strategic plan to decide our priorities for driver education and training; roadworthiness tests and post- crash and accident/emergency response systems.
More importantly we need to make road safety a priority. In the last year, road accidents have increased by 78% and we think it just normal. When we had the Ebola crisis, the government took steps to curb this menace and a lot of human and financial resources was used to bring us to normalcy. If only we could dedicate 10% of the effort that was made to address the Ebola crisis to road accidents then and only then will we see a reduction in this man-made disaster.
The photograph attached to this article is a recent accident on the Regent – Grafton Highway involving an ambulance. Even the drivers of our ambulances are not prone to this disaster and the story goes on.
More of my observations during the UN Global Road Safety Week (8 -14 May 2017) which coincidentally focuses on ‘Speed Management’.
Victor Ako Mengot
Chartered Member of the Institution of Highways and Transportation
Reporting from Freetown