A sad year: 1,791 lives lost on Malawian roads

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Written by: Sydney Chuka

Photo credits: The Shire Porter Photography

Malawi commemorated the African Road Safety Day on 25th November 2017. The Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services reported in The Nation that 1,719 lives were lost in road accidents in 2017 to date. At the time of reporting, we were 327 days into the year; thus translating to 5 or 6 deaths every day on Malawian roads. Projected for the full year, at the same fatality rate, we are looking at 2000 deaths for 2017. I have used a straight line projection and I have not made any adjustments for the festive season. Once you account for the festive season, the number could be higher. The article in The Daily Times read “a large percentage of the victims being those between 25 and 44 years”. I would like to know just how large is a “large percentage” and for a very good reason.

On 17th November 2017, I witnessed an accident that has incited this article. I was driving towards Capital Hill in Lilongwe and I was about to turn towards the Malawi College of Accountancy Lilongwe Campus when a blue Audi came cruising down the road. My first thought was “where is this guy rushing to?” As I turned to get into the main road, I saw the car collide into the back of a bicycle taxi (locally known as a kabaza). The taxi driver and passenger, who were not wearing helmets, were both hurled a couple of meters into the air. Then they came crushing into the asphalt a couple of meters away from the place of impact. At that point, the car had not braked. Instinctively, I chased down the car. I did not want to witness a hit-and-run scenario. The car did eventually stop and we both came back to attend to the victims. For a while, the passenger was listless but the taxi driver was wailing at the top of his voice ndi kufa ine (I am dying). I will not divulge the graphic details. The bystanders were now attending to the victims and two G4S security cars stopped. The guards stepped down from the car and they helped the bystanders to place the victims in the security vehicle en route to Kamuzu Central Hospital. I took a picture of the Audi driver’s license and waited for Police to arrive. One off-duty Police officer stopped by and called his fellow Police officers who were just further up the road and arrived on the scene within a minute. When I stopped by on the scene a few hours later, I learnt that both victims were recovering but had suffered some broken bones. At the time of writing, the driver has been released from hospital but the passenger is still in hospital.

It later turned out that the passenger was a student at the Malawi College of Accountancy. She had taken the bicycle taxi at the Area 30 crossroads. The taxi driver was crossing the road to drop her at school when the accident occured. That decision to get on the bicycle taxi that morning not only jeopardised her education but also her life alongside that of the taxi driver. Out of the 1,971 fatalities reported, how many were just like her? A casualty of an unregulated and uninsured bicycle taxi industry.

I am an amateur cyclist that has recently branched out into being an unofficial cycling administrator. I am no Martin Luther King Jr., but I too do have a dream (#malotoathu) that young Malawian men and women will race down the streets of Paris past the Champs Élysées donned in the glorious “red, black and green” as they compete for Gold in the Paris Olympics of 2024. I honestly look forward to the day that Malawi has a national cycling team and a national cycling programme for people of all ages. It takes time to develop Olympic talent; you need three years to identify the competitive cyclists and probably another three to train them to Olympic standards.

To achieve this goal, I have met with some parents in the year to ask for their permission to let their children cycle so we can grow the sport. Most of the parents I have met have cited the same reason for not allowing their children to cycle on our roads: safety. We need safe roads for these young men and women to train daily for an hour or two without raising their parents or guardians blood pressures. Reading the road fatality statistics further highlights the road safety concerns as a cause worth fighting for. We are not fighting for any ulterior motives but for our own lives.

Unfortunately, there is very little or no policy that one can point to regarding the safety of the cycling community in Malawi. We do have a cycling governing body and several other stakeholders that directly or indirectly influence road safety for cyclists. I do not have any statistics on the number of cyclists on Malawian roads but there is not a day that goes by when there are no cyclist on the roads. Every road user in Malawi has seen the ubiquitous black-framed single-speed bikes across the country.

To emphasise the challenges we face on road safety; particularly for cyclists, I will provide some context.

For cyclists

  • A crush helmet is not a legal requirement for cyclists on the roads of Malawi and neither are visibility aids such as dynamo lights or reflective vests.
  • Cyclists can cross the roads without dismounting; without which, it can be challenging for cyclists to accurately assess what is happening behind them. As was the case in the accident I witnessed.

For the bicycle taxi industry

  • The growing bicycle taxi industry is completely unregulated and uninsured.
  • The bicycle taxi industry operates late into the night. Without adequate visibility measures, cyclist safety is severely compromised beyond sunset.
  • The emergence of bicycle taxis in the last few years has relieved pressure on the transport system in both urban and rural areas. We have also seen the introduction of bicycle ambulances in rural areas. However; this has also increased pressure on the shoulders of the roads.

Safety infrastructure

  • The country does not have roadside emergency services. It is very rare to see an ambulance or a fire engine at a road accident scene. The need for an ambulance is clear but less clear is the role of the fire engine. The fire engine crew is crucial in extracting people from mangled cars with high-powered hydraulic tools commonly referred to as the “jaws of life”. Professional emergency services operate on the principle of “The Golden Hour” which states that professionally attending to the victims of an accident within the first hour of the accident occurring prevents death. (This brings up another pertinent question: how long does it take for road accident victims in Malawi to be professionally attended to? I have a friend who was driving when a drunk man fell in front of his car at close range and he collided into him. The patient was alive when they arrived at the hospital, but the hospital personnel refused to treat the patient in the absence of a police report. My friend watched the patient expire.)
  • The country does not have mandated shoulders on the sides of the road to facilitate cyclist safety. Thus cyclists are usually disadvantaged as they negotiate for adequate space on roads. Sometimes the sides of the road are so eroded that they form mini gullies and there is no way one can ride a bike there unless one dismounts and pushes the bike. However, pushing the bike means that most people who cycle remarkable distances to get to work, will not make it in time.
  • The country does have speed limits that are only enforced by Traffic Police presence. This becomes problematic in areas with a high density of cyclists within a few millimetres of fast moving vehicles and there is no Traffic Police presence to enforce the speed limits. There is a need for unmanned speed limit enforcement.
  • Looking at the developments and challenges above, there is a need to consider introducing safety regulation for bicycle taxis in particular and for cyclists in general. We should also consider introducing insurance for all road users as is the case in the Republic of South Africa where they have the Road Accident Fund.

Before I close, I wanted to graphically quantify what 1,791 people actually look like. An Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, can ferry a maximum of 868 people comfortably. In other words, enough people to fill two Airbus A380 planes and 55 more have died on Malawian roads in the first 327 days of the year. Think about it. If two A380 planes had crushed in Malawi this year and there was not a single survivor in both incidents that would be catastrophic world news. All major news networks would come to cover the story. Yet more people have died on road accidents this year alone in this country and somehow it’s business as usual. Those 1,791 people are not strangers. They are our brothers and sisters. As I look forward to 2018, I hope that the safety concerns raised in this article will fall on receptive ears and empathetic hearts.

  • This article has been written in the spirit of “#malotoathu”.