Speeding and the behavior of Namibians on the road worries me - George Simataa

By George Simataa
December 2012 - January 2013
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In this issue, we interview the Chairperson of Namibia Road Safety Council, George Simataa on policy issues regarding road safety in Namibia.

PF: When we talk about policies on road safety planning, design and implementation in Namibia, are these reactive or proactive?

GS: They are proactive, we don’t deal with reactive things, if you go to our offices, you will realise that we have a strategic plan. When you have a strategic plan you cannot work on reactive things. Let’s go back to the Decade of Action for road safety 2011-2020, a 10 year action programme that has been approved by the United Nations.

Each member state has taken part in making sure that they pitch their strategic plan in accordance with the UN Global Decade of action for road safety. What was good with us in Namibia is that even before the Decade of Action for road safety was approved, we had our own national strategic plan. And, our plan was based on the same themes that the Decade of Action is based on in terms of the safe systems approach.

In fact, road safety generally borders on three things: how good the roads are- how they are engineered, driver behavior and the aspect of the vehicle safety. Those are the three main aspects that researchers worldwide have found to be the back bone of road safety and these are generally referred to as the 4 E’s.

We took these into account when we drafted our strategic plan, as did those who designed the Namibian Chapter of the Decade of Action. So you can see that there was a general fit into these things. At policy level we have a very proactive stance as we are not reacting to issues but we have a plan of action which is aimed at long term gains for the sub-sector.

But you have isolated incidences, when you start to see accident hot spots and you need to start reacting. Even before that comes, we have already identified accident hot spots in many areas. For example, if you look at our research, we have Khomas as the highest, followed by Erongo, Otjozondjupa and then Oshana. In all these areas we have a plan and a strategy on how to act and minimise those accidents.

PF: Having mentioned the three critical areas, what can you say about the state of roads in Namibia; the engineering aspect, the drivers and how you engage with the manufacturers at your level?

GS: You are right; there are some things that are not within our control, because we don’t manufacture any car in this country. We at the National Road Safety Council may not be a government ministry, but we are established by an act of parliament and therefore we are a machinery of the State that can talk to government.

But let me talk more about driver behaviour where we have more control. This is an aspect where we put a lot of effort into educating people on how they should behave and drive. I think you’ve heard most of our programmes on the radio especially on Good Morning Namibia. We have these type of radio programs any day when there is a slot for us to talk about road safety to the nation.

We also use slots in the print media as part of our education campaign to our people. Therefore when the police stop you, sometimes they will not arrest you immediately but advise you to go slow and reduce speed. That is part of our collective educational efforts with the police. All I am trying to say is that we put more efforts on issues related to driver behavior. This occupies between 70-80 percent of our time.

On issues related to the engineering of the road, there is a need for us to discuss this element more with the Roads Authority. The Roads Authority is the executing agency of the government, in this case, the Ministry of Works and Transport. Both the Roads Authority and us have one shareholder Minister. This is to allow synergy between our work and that of the Roads Authority, particularly on the issue of the road design. That is also the reason why the CEO of the Roads Authority is a Board Member of the National Road Safety Council. But this is a very difficult aspect because of its long term nature. When you discover a problem of engineering on the road, you don’t start to dismantle the road and repair it. All you can do is to engage stakeholders to avoid such bad designs in future.

On the designs of cars it’s a difficult thing because, as I said, we don’t manufacture cars in this country- we just buy and drive them. But at least we test them for roadworthiness to ensure that the vehicles are fit to be on our roads. It is with the process of vehicle testing that we are able to eliminate aging vehicles and take them off our roads. That is the least we can do to come nearer to enforcing this principle of safer vehicles on our roads.

PF: How are you dealing with the involvement of stakeholders particularly at the local authority level?

GS: We operate from a premise that our head office is too small to cover the whole country of 790 000km². Because of that, we have established what we call the Regional Road Safety Forums. All thirteen regions of Namibia have these forums and the Office Bearers are in place as we speak. At these forums all the stakeholders, the police, the army, the regional council, the traditional chiefs and the traditional authorities meet under a regional chairperson. I have launched the regional road safety forums in Katima Mulilo and Rundu. Other members of the National Road Safety Council also witnessed the launching of similar forums in various regions.

The strategic plan we have in terms of enhancing road safety is not involving on the National Safety Council alone, but on all stakeholders and different role players. We have a budget of approximately N$ 20million. With this budget we try to assist our stakeholders to help us implement our strategic plan. Similarly, various stakeholders also make budgetary provisions to implement their part of the strategic plan related to road safety. For example, the police makes sure that they request adequate funding to meet their demands for road safety management, whereas the Regional and Local Authorities would also do the same.

It is a difficult thing for us at central level, to tell you what could be done by the local authority for example in Katima Mulilo or in Oshakati. This is the responsibility of the regional road safety forum. Depending on the availability of funds, the Local Authorities may also help.

PF: Talking about your size and your reach, who calls the shots here, the MVA Fund or the National Roads Safety Council, since you all seem to be running safety campaigns?

GS: We are not in competition with MVA Fund as we are equals in terms of law. We are both established by an act of parliament, therefore the MVA Fund and the NRSC complement each other and that should be sufficient. We are for road accident prevention and we should make sure that the roads are safe while the MVA Fund is an insurance company that pays road accident victims. But because they want to grow their cash book or balance sheet they join us in road accident prevention initiatives. Because if there are more accidents, there are more claims that come to the MVA Fund and their balance sheets get depleted. Naturally, they should join us in our efforts to prevent road crashes.

In terms of the aforesaid the MVA Fund are keen to do some road safety campaigns with us. Therefore when you see them mounting a campaign somewhere in this country it is not that they are in competition with the NRSC, they are our stakeholders and are doing things that are to their benefit.

PF: Looking at the road accidents at policy level, what is it that you see in Namibia compared to other countries?

GS: I would say at policy level we are all the same, we are all children of the United Nations, the United Nations has now set guidelines on how to implement road safety programmes as per the guidelines in the UN Global Action Plan, and that is why we are all signatories to the Decade of Action plan.

At policy level if you go to Botswana, they are talking about the Decade of Action for road safety 2011-2020. You go to Zambia, Zimbabwe we are all talking about the same thing.

Where I see the difference is on implementation of the how actual policies are implemented and translated into action. If you go to Botswana they are strict on drinking and driving, they are strict on over speeding and overloading.

The issue of police getting bribes is very minimal, that is why even last year, during the Christmas period Botswana recorded very few deaths on the road- I am sure they recorded a digit less than ten, yet we recorded quite a big number, just like South Africa.

At policy level there is nothing I can be envious of Botswana, Zambia or Zimbabwe because we are all driven by a common goal and sharing from one pool. It’s a very good thing our leaders have established regional and continental blocks for us not to re-invest the wheel. It is this reason that we have the UN, the AU, SADC, and SACU for example. The only difference comes how individual states translate these policies into actual practice. We need to see an increased number of police officers on the road if we are to make an impact. However, there is also a need to use technology to support the good work done by our police officers. In KwaZulu-Natal for example they don’t even worry about putting the police officers on the road. They have timers which work in such a way that if you are leaving a Windhoek checkpoint, for instance, the camera takes your picture and it gauges your arrival times wherever you are going. If one arrives say 10 minutes earlier they can easily tell the speed at which one was driving. People get fined. It is scientific so there is no way you can dispute.

These are technological measures that should be put in place to avoid human beings working on the road. This is because human beings have the tendencies of arguing, defending themselves, and of course, feeling pity for one another.

If you escape a road block because somebody is feeling pity for you, you are not going to stop- you will continue again over-speeding. In Botswana it’s very different, if you don’t respect the speed limit, you will find someone who will report you to the police and the police will take immediate action.

PF: Let us zero in on the implementation of policies in Namibia, where do we stand?

GS: I think it’s going slowly but surely, the point is not a one man’s business. It’s like HIV/AIDS; you cannot claim that HIV/AIDS is the issue of the Ministry of Health and Social Service, it is a cross-cutting factor. All of us have something to do with the epidemic, so is the issue of road safety, it’s a cross cutting factor as well.

For example like I said earlier, we depend on the Ministry of Works and Transport to build good roads. On the other hand we depend on the manufacturers of cars, the police and the citizens. Why would the citizens go into a car which is not roadworthy as a passenger, or get into a car where they can clearly see that the driver is drunk? Citizens should get into the business of reporting bad driving. Road safety requires the involvement of all role players. We have succeeded in talking to the Ministry of Education in terms of integrating road safety into the National School Curriculum. I think in a year or two they will start to teach road safety in the schools from Grade One up till Grade Twelve, so that kids start growing up knowing the importance and various aspects of road safety.

The feeling here in Namibia is that we have good roads, we have expensive cars, those which are fast, expensive car owners have an attitude of wanting to test the speed of these cars and yet it is the speeding that is killing us.

The MVA Fund have been doing very well in terms of their campaigns to tell the people not to over speed and overload. The police too have been doing very well by using breathalyzers, I have seen them offloading people at roadblocks if their cars are overloaded.

PF: Looking at Windhoek City given its growth, what are some of the initiatives in place in the hot spots?

GS: At national level it is not easy to say let us help this municipality and not the other. This is why we compile statistics at national level. Based on statistics we are able to tell which region, town or road is prone to road crashes. Police officers are key to road safety. We assist municipalities where possible. For example we have assisted the municipality of Katima Mulilo to put on road signs and zebra crossings around town. We have recently also assisted the police by donating equipment of N$700 000 to the traffic police, in the form of breathalyzers, speed hump controls and roadblock signs.

PF: Still on policy matters, will treating road accidents as murder cases and not culpable homicide have an effect on the attitude of drivers?

GS: We have not gone into that debate as yet, as that is more of the mandate of the Ministry of Justice, although they are onboard with us. What we have gone into is the decriminalization of road traffic fines, you know that if you have a road traffic fine you become a criminal and then you go to court. That is not necessary because firstly, you are wasting the time of the courts and secondly, the money that comes from that process will not help with road safety, so we have engaged the government and we have decriminalised that part.

In my view, it will not be fair to treat culpable homicide as a criminal offence and treat such offenders as murderers. However this is a serious policy matter that resorts in the domain of policy makers. We have not yet discussed this particular matter at the NRSC and I am not sure if it will ever come up in the near future. It’s a serious matter and I am not sure if there is a country which has gone in that direction. If you look at the criminal procedures Act, which is more or less the same in all countries, it regards accidents as culpable homicide, because it’s an accident. I am not sure if this person thought of murder, because murder is when you have an intention to kill. But culpable homicide is an accident and in the process somebody died.

If somebody killed someone in a road crash, in my view it’s not right to see them as criminals because they did not deliberately kill that person, it was an accident. But what led to that accident could be that person was driving an un-roadworthy vehicle, he was drunk or he did not obey the road traffic rules- so many things which he has control over. That is why this person should be blamed for this accident. But to consider him a criminal would be wrong.

PF: How about extending the policing hours even at night when the level of recklessness spikes in most cases?

GS: You are right, but the visibility of the police will not be possible; how many police officers do we have in this country? It’s a problem.

Recently, we were reviewing our strategic plan and I pointed out that the difference between us and Europe is that if you look at England, for example, they don’t have a constitution. There is nothing that guides them except the moral values based on the beliefs of wrong or right. But on our side, we need to be guided by something that is written; we go to court and argue around the constitution. The British do not argue about that anymore; it’s the level of civilisation and internalisation of how these things should be done.

If you go to Sweden, they have a vision for zero deaths on the road, but they have not criminalised road crashes. Of course they have control over cars they manufacture.

PF: At a very personal level as a citizen of this country what worries you the most about road accidents in Namibia?

GS: It’s the issue of speed; overloading, non-usage of safety belts as well as driving under the influence of alcohol. Come Christmas time you will see how people contravening most traffic rules. But the main issue is speed, accidents could be avoided if we abide to 120km per hour. Most of us are doing between 140-160km per hour.

PF: What is your message to the Namibian road users this festive season?

GS: All I can say to the road users is Christmas is a time to rejoice with family and to be happy. We must keep to the speed limit, wear safety belts, do not overload, and don’t drink and drive. Namibia is a vast country, those that will travel long distances this Christmas should plan to start early. They must also take breaks at regular intervals, say after every 200km. We must enjoy our country by stopping at significant places in order to break long journeys. For example, if you are traveling to Katima Mulilo and Oshakati, why not stopping for a night in Grootfontein to see the meteorites. Those going to the south, Keetmanshoop is a very good place to hang around and continue the next day.

PF: Thank you Mr. Simataa.