Almost every vehicle is causing an accident

By Eugene Tendekule
December 2012 - January 2013
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Namibia has one of the best road networks in Africa, but these roads are not safe. The spate of accidents and the resulting casualties are not only costing human lives but have far reaching consequences socially and economically. Solutions exist but there seems to be no quick fix. In this interview, we spoke to Eugene Tendekule, the Executive Secretary of the Namibia Road Safety Council about the aspects of road safety in Namibia.

PF: Can you give us an overview of road safety in Namibia, what does the current situation look like on the ground?

ET: Road safety in Namibia is not at the level at which we would want it to be, the reason being that the rate at which we are causing accidents is very high. The current figures of between 12 000 and 15 000 accidents per year are extremely high given the country’s level of motorisation. We have about 280 000 vehicles and 203000 licenced drivers in Namibia. If you take the number of vehicles and you divide them by the number of accidents you will be able to determine how many accidents we record per registered vehicle. Ours is a double digit figure, while developed countries have managed to keep their figures down to single digits. Since 2002 we have been recording in access of 50 crashes per 1000 vehicles.

The point that comes out clearly is that almost every vehicle is causing an accident in Namibia. The second point is that, if you look at our demographics, the Namibian population is officially at 2.1 million people. Our fatalities per 100 000 people fluctuate between 12 and 16, this figure is too high for Namibia. But if you look at countries that are highly populated such as the UK, Sweden and Australia, these are countries which are high on the road safety performance index, their records in terms of road accidents fatalities per 100 000 people is down to a single digit, meaning between 1 and 9.

PF: What is the level of risk in Namibia?

ET: The road users most at risk are pedestrians. Pedestrians are over represented in terms of fatality figures and the reasons are very simple. One is that they are not protected, a pedestrian can be killed at a speed as low as 30km per hour. We all know that the prescribed speed limit in tow is 60. For me that is too high. When a pedestrian is hit at such speed the chances for survival are very slim. Pedestrians in this context cover all age groups starting from school children to employees that go to work in the morning, they are all grouped together.

We also know that in this country, there are very few people who drive at the prescribed legal speed. Even in urban areas where the maximum speed is 60 and lower in some places such as schools, there are very few people who adhere to that. On average the travelling speed in town is 80, we have observed that on some streets the speed goes up to 100km per hour, which is extremely fast and a pedestrian has no chance of survival when they are hit at that speed.

The second group that is vulnerable is the youth between 19 and we can stretch it to 44 years, of which the most vulnerable is the group between 19 -28 years. In terms of drivers and passenger age segmentation, the most affected are males between the ages of 19-29. Single vehicle overturn remains the main contributor to casualties in Namibia. It is estimated to contribute about 30% to the total casualty figures followed by pedestrian related crashes at about 22%. The two are jointly accountable for about 52% of all casualties.

PF: What is so peculiar about this age group, especially since they are the economically active group, maybe we can look at gender as well?

ET: Yes, males are the most aggressive and the most represented group in accident. According to our analysis, male drivers are responsible for about 80% of all crashes while female drivers are responsible for about 15%. This over representation may be attributed to the number of male drivers as compared to female drivers. The current statistics indicate that there are about 147,000 male drivers as opposed to 56,000 female drives. Besides this, egoism, testosterone and an element of adrenalin also contribute to male road rage and aggression. We believe that these among others underpin accidents caused by men. It is undisputed that some people are adrenalin junkies- they want to take risks to raise their excitement levels. As a result, most of them do not make it in their pleasure-seeking and they end up killing themselves and other road users who are innocent in most cases.

They challenge the speed of their cars they end up overturning them because our roads are not designed for such speeds, our roads are designed for speeds of up to 120km per hour maximum. If you go beyond that, you run the risk of an accident because you will not be able to stop your car in time should something happen.

The other peculiar issue is the high occupancy of vehicles. Though accidents that kill more than five people at a time don’t happen every day, they really are a problem, they are the drivers of the country’s accident figures. You may record fewer accidents in a year, but if a single accident involving a bus carrying 60 people occur, you should naturally expect high fatalities. By avoiding bus related road accidents we can ensure a lower fatality rate.

I was invited to make a presentation in South Africa, at their annual road safety conference. They have a bigger problem than we do. Population-wise, they have over 50 million people; when it comes to vehicles it is a couple of millions and they are talking about 14 000 fatalities per year while in our case we are talking about 450 to 500 fatalities annually. That however, does not put Namibia in a better position because the lower the population, the higher the rate per 100 000 people.

PF: Can you take us through the impact of these accidents on our society?

ET: The impact is two-fold - economic and social. Firstly, the economic impact; according to our estimate these accidents are costing the country about N$1.8 billion annually, which is about 1% of our GDP. All that money is going into accidents and that is a conservative estimate.

We are in the process of commissioning a study that will give us the exact costs, meaning that we should be looking at the production that is lost say for example, if you die at the age of 30, you will leave behind a 30 year loss in terms of productivity. As for now, we are using one formula that was crafted in South Africa some years ago. We are in a process of adopting a formula recommended and developed by the World Health Organisation.

In terms of the social impact, accidents have the potential to push people below the bread line. Say for example, we estimate that for every working individual in Namibia, there are about six people who depend on such a person. If this person dies, all these six people will have no income at all or their future automatically becomes very bleak as their livelihood is adversely affected.

If you take a conservative number of 500 per year and multiply that by 6 it will give you a figure of 3000 people who are left destitute per year in the country. From this perspective, you will see that the cost of accidents compared to our investment in prevention is a very huge mismatch. If the accidents are costing us N$1.8 billion a year and we are investing N$15 million a year in addressing a N$1.8 billion problem, how long will it take us to address the issue?

To make an impact, we need to bring these to a balance, meaning that the funding for road safety should be commensurate with the cost of accidents. If this is not balanced we will never catch up with the cost. If we can at least catch up and balance, we will probably get a better result.

PF: How best then can we reduce these accidents?

ET: One thing we should acknowledge is that the problems we are facing today were not created today but ten or twenty years ago; we are only feeling the impact now. For us to be able to change the situation 20 years from now, we need to do something now.

One of the things we need now is a new road safety culture, meaning that we should educate our road users through their years of school education so that in twenty years from now we will have new road users who think differently from us. This we have started with the National Institute for Educational Development (NIED), we want to incorporate road safety into the school curriculum by next year, all things being equal.

Secondly, education on its own will not work unless it is supplemented by other elements. There should be appropriate laws in place and these laws must be aggressively enforced.

Thirdly, there should be some supplementary elements as well, because you can only stop the accident if you are the driver of the car by changing your attitude and observing the rules of the road. If I am not the driver of the car, it’s very difficult for me to stop the accident in which someone else is the driver.

For us to be able to do that there should be attitudinal changing campaigns, the sustainability of which comes from funding year-round campaigns supplemented by education programmes and effective law enforcement. We should also combat corruption. In addition, our justice system should be more sympathetic to our men and woman in uniform. There is nothing that discourages a traffic officer than cases that are through out of court willy-nilly.

Should everything fail, there should be a proper emergency response system that ensures that if an accident happens, people should be rescued as soon as possible so that we reduce the fatalities occurring from people bleeding to death on the side of the road. If we can pick up the pieces as quickly as possible, then we will be able to see our fatality figures going down in a short space of time.

PF: What are some of laws you feel can have an immediate effect on road accidents?

ET: Our current law restricts the speed of trucks, buses and minibus taxis; these vehicles are not supposed to exceed 100 km per hour but how many of them are complying? So what we can do is to limit the speed of these vehicles by legally compelling them to install speed limiters. This will reduce speed related accidents involving high occupancy vehicles.

Secondly, we need to put in place a mechanism that will control the driving hours of commercial drivers. It will not help to drive at 100 km per hour and then you fall asleep behind that wheel- due to fatigue the impact will still be the same. So we need to reduce the driving hours of the drivers of high occupancy vehicles. For every number of hours that they have been employed, they must rest for a determined period before they can continue.

Alternatively, the bus owner should employ two drivers, one who will drive to the north and the other who will come down to the south. Most buses for example leave Windhoek at 6pm and drive all night and arrive at their destination in the north in the morning. They then commence loading again to be on the road the following night, yet the driver of that vehicle might have slept for only two hours. The hours he spends at the wheel are many and therefore he needs more hours to recover. If he falls asleep whose fault is it? I leave it as an open question.

We need to control the driving hours of these high occupancy vehicles very firmly. If we reduce the speed, there should also be enforcement of the driving hours.

PF: How about the pressure drivers face to make money from longer hours?

ET: It is immoral to make money on other people’s misery- you cannot make money by putting so many lives at risk. The people whose lives you putt at risk are the ones who should give you the money. So are they paying you to be killed or are they paying for a service?

Making money at one go will not help us, we should think about making money in the longer term- that is much more sustainable. If the bus that you are using now is not giving you the money you need, why not trade it in for something bigger so that you can generate more revenue per trip?

The other thing is that we should also discourage is the tendency of bus/taxi owners asking their drivers to make a fixed amount of revenue per day. This threshold pushes drivers to drive like maniacs, as they know failure to reach the threshold would mean dismissal. At the same time they know that if they can make the required money in the first half of the day, whatever is collected thereafter will accrue to them.

We have commissioned a forensic study of the accidents that took place in the north; the outcome will inform us as to what further action to take.

PF: In reference to the quality and fitness of drivers, what are some of the issues you are working on?

ET: We have a programme that perhaps has not been rolled out fairly due to capacity constraints. We commissioned a study in 2010 that looked at developing a workplace-based road safety strategy.

One of the elements we would want to propose to the industry is for transport companies to inculcate a culture of safety. For example Shell and Volvo have adopted road safety as part of their operational policy. It should be the policy of any company involved in transportation to discourage speeding, overloading, drinking and driving as well as using cell phone while driving. In addition companies should enforce driving hours.

PF: Obviously for companies, it’s much easier. How about taxi drivers and buses, most of whom operate from home? Add to that the driving schools which are operating without proper direction?

ET: We have made recommendations to the Department of Transport and we are still making recommendations. We have been instructed by the Honourable Minister to suggest some policy changes. These policies you are talking about are some of the things we would like the minister to consider.

As we speak, driving schools operate as businesses under the Ministry of Trade and Industry; they go there and register and off they go for operations. There are no mechanisms to ensure that the type of training they give is of a high enough quality to guarantee better drivers. That element is missing, so what we intend to suggest is, on top of being registered with Trade, these schools should also register with the Ministry of Transport. This second registration will be based on two things: one, the people who give training must be properly licensed and properly qualified; two, the training material itself should be scrutinised and approved by the Ministry of Transport. Instructor must go through rigorous process before they are allowed to practice their trade. You should remember that driving schools are the factories through which drivers are produced. A deficient product will not perform optimally. The same is true with the drivers. A poorly trained driver can perform effectively and efficiently.

We would like to see defensive driving becoming part of the driving schools’ curriculum. As it stands now, the training is only meant to teach a person how to put a vehicle in motion, that’s it. Students are not trained to have some kind of anticipation. For example, if you see a ball rolling in front of your car, what should come quickly to your mind is that behind that ball is a child. You must take action and slow down even before you can see the child. But you don’t see that here, in Namibia. I normally stand at the traffic lights to observe what is happening. When the light turns amber, to a Namibian driver it means increase the speed. But in terms of the law, when the light turns amber it is instructing you to slow down in preparation to stop. That is the attitude we have; if we don’t ensure that attitude change is part of the driving school, where will the driver get it from?

The other shortcoming of the Ministry of Works and Transport is the lack of inspectorate that ensures that there is quality in driver training, meaning that they should do random inspection to ensure minimum standards are in place, as for now there is nothing.

PF: In packaging your messages, who is communicating with who to achieve the desired outcome?

ET: The industry in which we are is a very difficult industry in the sense that you have to straddle two fields - social, as well as commercial marketing. You are competing with commercially-produced adverts in the market. At the end of the day you need to reach your target audience.

What we do, based on your question, is to identify shortcomings based on the analysis of accident reports as well as the feedback we get from investigations such as the one we are currently doing for the accident in the north.

We then devise strategies on how we can address the issues identified. What happens is that we develop a message and make sure that it meets certain standards as per the market in which we are operating, meaning that we engage communications companies which assists in the designing and things like that and then we place it in the medium we believe is best suited to deliver. We are talking about a chain of target audiences, but packaging a message in such a way that it speaks to one segment of the market has been a challenge, I will admit.

We know that males are dominating the statistics of road accidents and the subsequent fatalities, so we need to address them specifically. It has been a challenge for us to be able to find a market mix that will give us leverage to get to them. We can use radio, but there are very few of the target audience who listen to NBC for example, they would rather listen to their CDs or to other radio stations.

Another challenge is that it is extremely costly to advertise, but we are moving from the way we have been doing things. We have adopted what we call the Integrated Approach, which came as a package of the Decade of Action Campaign. We now have theme committees that are responsible for each of the pillars of the Decade of Action for road safety. The people who serve on these committee come from different institutions, and we want to use their expertise to see how we will be packaging the messages, in order to reach specific target audiences.

In addition to that, we have commissioned the University of Namibia to do a study for us on the effectiveness of all the campaigns we have been running in the country up to this year. The report is yet to come out; we have seen and work-shopped the draft.

But the findings are indicating that the degree of awareness is high, at over 70%. But the worry is that, awareness alone does not translate into behaviour change. People will say “I am aware that I was not supposed to speed, but I sped so that I could get where I am going quickly.” So what that tells us is that, education alone will not give us what we want. We need supplementary actions like law enforcement. If we are telling people not to speed, there should be somebody standing with a big stick behind the corner saying, if you speed this is what you get.

For example, I have gone on record by suggesting that we divide the road from Windhoek to Otavi so that we can have a dual carriageway which will prevent head-on collisions. I am glad that the Highest Office in the country have seen sense in the idea and have given instructions to the relevant authorities to find means to put the idea in place. Should that happen, all these head-on collisions we have seen on Okahandja, Otjiwarongo and Otavi road will be a thing of the past. But nonetheless, that is an engineering solution, so these programmes should be complementary, thus education, enforcement and engineering.

Engineering will give you a fixed engineering solution, which is long term, education and enforcement will deal with the attitudes.

PF: What are the key recommendations that have come out of the two annual conferences held so far, which can make a difference on road safety?

ET: One profound recommendation that we have started implementing is that we should thoroughly investigate accidents that would claim over five lives at once. We want to get to the bottom of the causes of these accidents. This will enable us to devise methods of preventing similar accidents from taking place.

Secondly, the conference has given us an understanding of the private sector expectations. We would like to get the private sector on board but there are issues that the private sector has pointed out, that hamper them from coming on board. Some of the challenges they brought to the fore are bureaucratic and some of them are lack of consistency and some duplication of roles and responsibility.

PF: Finally, what is your Christmas message to the Namibian road user?

ET: My message is that, in as much as it is the responsibility of government to ensure that there is safety on the road that responsibility must be carried out by the individual road user. There is no way government will be represented in each and every vehicle, government is us who have elected office bearers.

So since it is us who should implement those decisions, my appeal to every Namibian road user is to make sure that while you are preparing for Christmas you must ensure that your vehicle is roadworthy well in advance; make sure that the tyres are ok, the brakes are working, etc.

Once you have done that, make sure you get enough rest, especially those who will be driving over long distances. While you are on the road, please obey the rules of the road, the speed limit, the overtaking rules and the rules pertaining to sobriety, be sober all the way.

PF: Thank you so much Mr. Tendekule