By Mohamed Juma Jalloh
A gruesome road accident is an eye sore that only few people can resist. The month of September 2019 would be ingrained in the minds of many Sierra Leoneans as one of the most horrific regarding the occurrences of highway misfortunes.
From the spiritual perspective of predestination, road accidents are certainly bound to occur.
Other than that, if one were to make a deduction out of expert and technical analysis, many road accidents are caused by human factors and technical malfunctioning of the organs of the automobile. Therefore, it can be predictable and to a very large extent preventable.
Accidents all over the world including Sierra Leone have accounted for several deaths and disabilities, leaving hundreds as orphans and widows.
In Sierra Leone, the engineering and infrastructure of roads including many more have added to the high rate of accidents on our roads.
In the first instance, absence of standards and regulations for vehicle importation into the country means undesired relics from Europe, Asia and America keep on flooding the country unabated.
Some cars plying the streets are simply road unworthy because they have worn out.
Apart from the hazardous fumes volleyed in the air, the vehicles pose a high fatal risk to pedestrians and co-vehicle users.
In Sierra Leone, road safety enforcement squarely falls within the domain of an older stakeholder, the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) and a relatively new one, Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority (SLRSA).
The traffic police is mandated to ensuring the protection of life and property on the roads whilst the role of the road safety corps/ traffic wardens is to identify road traffic misdemeanors.
The Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority (SLRSA) was established by an Act of Parliament in 1996 with the mandate to regulate, coordinate and promote efficiency in road safety.
Their mandate is exclusively provided for around the Road Traffic Regulations (RTR) that looks at traffic misdemeanors.
This role overlaps with that of the Sierra Leone Police which has its mandate around the Road Traffic Act (RTA) of 1960.
The RTA provides for the Police to investigate charge and prosecute major traffic breaches such as dangerous and reckless driving and fatalities.
The two institutions are doing almost the same job and hence cannot handle or manage the plethora of traffic offences on the roads.
Before 1996, the Sierra Leone Police was both in charge of Road Traffic Act and Road Traffic Regulation offences.
Many vehicle owners and members of the general public have noted that the two institutions are a burden to the citizenry, especially motorists.
Extortion of monies and unnecessary court cases that are sometimes not necessary has been the order of the day.
Most vehicle owners or drivers rather prefer not to comply with the rules and regulations just because at the end of the day, greasing the palms of the Road Safety Corps or the Police Officer crowns it all.
A recent example was when a ramshackle truck with cement cargo spontaneously conflagrated in front of the Red Lion Bread building at Siaka Stevens.
Residents and business people had to flee for safety because the immediate surrounding had engulfed in a thick cloud of smoke.
The inferno was later addressed by the National Fire Force (NFF).
One of the NFF officials remarked that smoke kills faster than fire as it can easily suffocate by preventing the inhalation of oxygen.
Even though fatalities were not recorded the scenario depicts the impending danger to society when law enforcement officers turn a blind eye to a peril in motion after subjecting themselves to petty corruption.
The situation is also the same when one is travelling to the provinces where it is common to spot gigantic automobiles parking by the side of the road often with no park or flash lights and in some cases with a single head light.
Flash light reflectors that are absent in many vehicles have safety value because they alert an incoming traffic of a stationary car.
As if their lives are valueless, apprentice boys can be seen recklessly hanging at the back of container trucks in high velocity, some can even be pictured sleeping underneath motionless trucks.
Not even the reverberating sounds of passing cars can render them awake.
Vehicles using the same route can inadvertently crash into the static truck; the resulting episode would be a decapitated and dismembered scene of scattered human body parts.
In making a case for the SLRSA at the 2020 budget hearing, Panda Noah, the Executive Director presented a budget of Le 91.6 Billion to the Ministry of Finance to tackle most of the operational and administrative bottlenecks of the authority.
Hoping that the 2020 budget would enhance efficiency and effectiveness of the Authority, many road accidents across the country go undocumented.
Lack of institutional capabilities to access comprehensive data systems, has failed to inform proper policy planning aimed at drastically reducing road disasters.
According to Dr. Orwizz Koroma, the country`s only Pathologist at the Connaught Hospital Mortuary, “instead of decreasing, road accidents are becoming commonplace with over 200 deaths every year involving pedestrians, passengers and drivers.”
Lack of upgrading and expansioning of the roads to accommodate escalating traffic as well as inadequate street lightening resulting in poor visibility have caused many road crashes.
There are also poor road signs. Even in places where they are visible, they are largely incomprehensible to many illiterate people who never attended a driving school, but only becoming drivers after graduating as an apprentice.
Despite its resource challenges, the SLRSA must be in a position to establish national driving schools where drivers can be trained on road safety etiquettes, certified and later released to ply vehicles on the roads.
Another notable cause of road accidents is the human factor such as fatigue, insomnia and divided attention, drink driving, over speeding, overloading and mobile usage.
Abdul Karim Dumbuya, Public Relations Officer of SLRSA said reckless driving on slippery roads are the major causes of accidents that occurred in the month of September 2019.
On the highways, drivers care less about speed limits; many violate the 60 miles per hour recommendation by running up to 120 miles per hour.
Many drivers lack personal responsibility as they hardly undertake routine vehicle safety checks before venturing out on the highways.
Regular car safety checks can help in detecting malfunctioning parts which can be replaced thereby forestalling potential accidents.
But Abdul Karim Dumbuya, PRO of SLRSA, has a different view, “if a malfunctioning vehicle part is replaced by a substandard one, the danger is still not eradicated”
Now that the man power of the Road Safety Corps have been bolstered by the recent graduation of about 149 officers, instead of concentrating these new officers at `money-spinning` junctions in Freetown, mobility logistics must be furnished to these corps to accelerate highway patrols in a bid to prevent potential accidents.
There is no doubt that officials enforcing road safety regulations are similarly constrained by another human factor, namely integrity.
It is often alleged that police officers would opt forgoing a portion of their salaries to their superiors in return for permanent retention in the Traffic Division of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP).
Taxi drivers and Mini bus (poda poda) drivers plying the east end of Freetown have grudgingly complained of double extortionate programme by the SLP and Road Safety Corps (RSC).
A commercial Poda Poda driver who goes by the name of Sisqo says ‘’if you do not pay a booking fee of Le 50,000 at Calaba town or Shell bus stop, you are bound to be harassed by the police and road safety corps for the rest of the day’’.
Corruption involving enforcement officials have led to the poor execution of road safety acts and regulations, ultimately undermining government`s revenue generation and mobilization drive.
Whenever a breach or a road safety default is detected, the official is compromised by surreptitiously demanding for the offenders licenses.
Alas! With a token placed underneath.
If the official feels uncomfortable and insecure due to prying eyes, the offender is directed to deposit the bribe in most cases to a nearby top up seller.
Drivers of unlicensed and unregistered vehicles are also guilty of corrupting road officials whenever they are intercepted.
The SLRSA under the leadership of Panda Noah deserves commendation for accelerating road safety education.
The Authority has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with over 20 radio stations across the country and it has further increased its outreach activities to lorry parks, market places and educational institutions.
However, the scaling up of road safety education is yet to have a direct impact on the reduction of road accidents.
Apart from strengthening institutional capabilities, the success of the SLRSA is tied to the effective inter-agency collaboration with other like-minded institutions such as Sierra Leone Roads Authority (SLRA), Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC), Local Governments and the Office of National Security.
Interest groups such as commercial bike riders, tricycle unions, the national drivers and general transport workers union, traders union and market women’s association must be incorporated in the fight.
Private sector alliances, such as fuel dealers, Sierra Leone Brewery Limited and Indian alcohol manufacturers would serve as indispensable partners in the war to drastically reducing road accidents.
By Mohamed Juma Jalloh