At the State of the Nation Address last week, President Yoweri Museveni triumphantly stated that he now enjoyed driving on Uganda’s roads. This statement garnered him cheers and applause from the audience, who seemed to celebrate this milestone right alongside of him.
There is little doubt that roads around Uganda have improved in the past few years. Newly constructed highways near Hoima rival those in Europe and the new tarmac on the way to Kisoro is an absolute pleasure to drive on.
Yet I’ve never been able to fully enjoy driving around Uganda. From small trips around Kampala to longer trips to Gulu, speeding, overtaking and a lack of sidewalks create incredibly dangerous situations for pedestrian and motorist alike.
I have watched buses full of children pull off maneuvers that would leave race car drivers breathless. I have thanked my immense luck more than once when rushed drivers, attempting to overtake, have come within inches of causing me trauma or death.
The idea that the roads are now a pleasure to drive on may be true if you have a convoy that buffets your own car, pushing all other drivers to the side while you pass. However for many of us, the lax laws and lack of police enforcement for dangerous or drunk drivers can make long trips a harrowing proposal.
Such issues are not limited to personal experience, but make their way into the everyday of Ugandan life. Recently, former member of Parliament Bartille Toskin was killed in a car crash near Iganga. And local news stories where students, soldiers, busloads of travelers and even the President’s own convoy are involved in fatal or near-fatal crashes flows in with tragic regularity.
We have improved the state of roads, but not our states on the road.
The WHO’s Global Status Report on Road Safety from 2013, shows that Uganda has one of the worst traffic accident rates in the world. Almost half of the victims are pedestrians, who, lacking sidewalks and safe places to walk near the road, are often hit by speeding or inattentive drivers. After the sun goes down, a lack of proper lighting along roads increases this risk.
A look at post crash care also shows that a lack of emergency telephone numbers and local hospitals with ambulatory care severely impacts survival rates. Less than 10% of seriously injured passengers received transport by ambulance to a nearby hospital. If victims do survive a trip to the nearest hospital, they are still in trouble as most emergency care clinics around Uganda have zero access to injury detection systems or training in emergency surgery and post-trauma care.
There are a number of feasible measures the government could implement to improve safety along major highways throughout Uganda. Giving ambulances and training to hospital staff in smaller towns (as well as cities) would be a major step. Creating a call center that connects accident victims to nearby health centers and emergency services could also positively impact survival rates.
Practically speaking, the creation of truck lanes will eventually be a must. Such lanes would prevent people from having to overtake overloaded trucks going 20klm/hour down congested two-lane highways.
I would love to enjoy a drive through Uganda. The scenery is breathtaking and the roads are smoother than ever. Yet the dangers remain all too real. Implementing just a few changes could be the difference between life and death for many of us. So while Uganda has come a long way, the government cannot rest on their laurels. Rather, we must keep moving forward, and create a road system that will be safer for all.