OPINION: Ugandan roads kill more people annually than Malaria and HIV

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By Mugarura Steven Rukwengye

As the festive season approached in 2023, my family, like countless others worldwide, anticipated joyful celebrations during the Christmas and New Year festivals.

However, our hopes were shattered on December 19th, 2023, when tragedy struck along the Mbarara –

Ishaka highway.

Four members of my family were among the victims of a devastating road accident. Among them was my 96-year-old father, along with his 8-year-old great- grandchild, his driver, and a grandson. Only one survivor emerged from the wreckage, bearing the burden of multiple fractures.

The collision not only claimed the lives of six individuals but also left numerous others critically injured, shattered families, and disrupted livelihoods, as several of the deceased were primary breadwinners.

At 96 years, the resilient Mzee Elia Rukwengye had bravely defeated cancer and other age- related ailments but his life journey was terminated by the road horror.

In the midst of our grief, as we laid four cherished souls to rest within a single week, it became painfully evident that our experience was not isolated. Road accidents have woven a web of sorrow, silently ensnaring families across our nation.

Ugandan roads are a breeding ground for tragedy, claiming lives and leaving a trail of devastation comparable to the deadliest diseases like malaria and HIV plaguing our country.

They are the leading courses of death and disability among the young and productive population.

While malaria killed 17556 people in 2022 according to the WHO statistics, the World bank reported an alarming 18426 deaths attributed to road accidents during the same period. Shockingly, 94% of these fatalities are males, with motorcycles (Bodabodas) contributing 74% of the total accidents.

Mzee Elia Rukwengye and his great grandson Keine died in an accident

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics accident safety index (ASI) puts the death records at 18 death per 100 accident crashes whereas the Uganda Police Force crime and traffic road safety report 2022 indicates an average of 50 road crashes every day of which 17.6% are fatal and 74% are serious with severe injuries.

It reported 16.9% increase in fatal cases and 17% increase in road crashes from the previous year with December as the most affected month of the year. The recently released 2023 police and traffic accident report indicate an increase of 35% in road crashes from the previous year.

The statistics paint a grim picture; yet, behind these numbers lie stories of heartbreak, shattered dreams, and families torn apart by preventable tragedies which in totality put the country in a quite precarious situation.

The root causes of these accidents are multifaceted, encompassing gross human error, poorly maintained vehicles, adverse weather conditions, substandard road infrastructure, and unqualified drivers.

Over-speeding, driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and reckless behavior behind the wheel like speaking on mobile phone while driving, riding motorcycles without a helmet, all have become endemic, transforming Ugandan roads into perilous death traps.

The author, Mugarura Steven Rukwengye

On the fateful day of my dad’s tragedy, his designated driver wasn’t in the driving seat. It was an inexperienced mischievous home boy who was behind the steering wheel.

Objections from his grandfather reportedly fell on a deaf ear. While on the burial, the Regional Police Commander greater Bushenyi Mr Peter Nkurega told mourners that preliminary investigation of the Police indicated over speeding as the cause of the accident.

Early February 2024, musician “Baby Deo Mbaziira” perished in a road accident along Busega – Nsanji highway when his vehicle collided with a truck coming from the opposite direction.

Inside the wreckage of his vehicle, bottles of beer were found littered suggesting that he was driving under the influence of alcohol. In the month of July 2023, a prominent Ugandan businessman known as Apollo Nyegamehe popularly known by his business name “Aponye” died in a car crash along Ntungamo - Mbarara highway when his V8 Toyota Landcruiser SUV collided with a stationary truck that had broken-down from the middle of the road and reportedly did not have visible reflectors.

Coupled with bad weather and poor visibility at night, the driver rammed into the behind of the truck killing his boss instantly. The extent of the impact suggested over speeding where the safety features of a V8 Landcruiser couldn’t save the situation.

In the same month of July 2023, a bus belonging to link bus company collided with another stationary truck that had broken down along Fort Portal – Kyenjojo road killing 23 people and injuring many.

The same bus driver had earlier been recorded texting messages while driving implying that he was not concentrating. With many other alike situations, they all point to, “road indiscipline and gross human mistakes” that are responsible for Ugandan roads predicament.

In the wake of personal tragedy, I sought answers from various stakeholders, including politicians, senior traffic officers, and community leaders. Their responses unveiled a complex tapestry of corruption, systemic failures, and political interference plaguing our efforts to curb road fatalities.

One senior politician and former police officer attributed the crisis to rampant corruption within traffic operations, citing instances where enforcement efforts were thwarted by powerful individuals seeking to exploit the system for personal gain.

Conversely, an active senior traffic commander lamented the challenges faced by dedicated officers, citing instances of intimidation, assault, and interference from influential figures.

The stories of brave officers who faced intimidation and assault while executing their duties, underscore the urgent need for systemic reform and accountability. Embarrassing scenes have been recorded while traffic officers on duty are being assaulted by civilians and army officers.

On two occasions, the Regional Traffic Officer for  KMP East Superintendent of Police Ruth Kyobutungyi while on her lawful duty of supervising traffic flow in the city was confronted by her seniors.

Firstly, by a rogue senior police officer at a rank of commissioner who has a record of battering females and his subordinates.

Secondly, by a senior army officer who was later appointed a police boss. Her plight never escaped the catching eye of media which published it.

Another embarrassing scene was captured on camera by onlookers when an army General and a Ugandan envoy in a foreign nation beat up Woman Sgt Ester Namaganda when she got him red handed violating traffic regulations. In the month of

January 2022, Police Constable Mukebezi Robert was shot and injured by army Corporal Babangida Bashir when the former responded to a traffic accident scene involving an army vehicle. The traffic officer Mukebezi’s leg was later amputated because of injuries sustained from the gunshot.

Senior officers have been witnessed violating traffic lights by driving through when they aren’t having a right of way or emergency. The road signs on most roads have been stolen and sold to scrap dealers who too enjoy protection because of their wealth.

With senior people as perpetrators of road indiscipline, It is imperative that those entrusted with upholding road safety are empowered to do so without fear or favor.

The government must take decisive steps to address this silent epidemic, engaging stakeholders across sectors and implementing measures to enhance enforcement, infrastructure, and public awareness.

Investing in technology, such as robotic traffic cameras, can augment human resources in monitoring road behavior, as demonstrated in countries like Tanzania.

Additionally, stringent penalties for traffic offenders, regardless of their status, coupled with regular vehicle inspections and enhanced public education, are essential steps towards mitigating future tragedies.

Citizens should be empowered to apprehend or report those found vandalizing road signs and hand them over to authority for reprimand. Implementers and enforcers of road safety guidelines should be supervised and audited closely by a separate unit to ensure compliance and effectiveness.

Otherwise, with the current state of impunity and abuse of systems, the country requires an overall national reset for systems to operate effectively. True change requires a collective commitment from citizens, policymakers, and law enforcement agencies alike.

We must hold ourselves and our leaders accountable, striving for a future where every journey is safe, and every life is valued.

This article serves as both a tribute to my late father and a rallying cry for action. It’s a honor in memory of all those lost and maimed to road accidents by driving forward with purpose, determination, and a shared resolve to build a safer, more resilient Uganda.

Mugarura Steven Rukwengye is an innovator and founder of  AFRAERO Science Innovations Research Ltd, freelance writer and a student of Policy at the School of Economics, Makerere University.

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