Africa has the world's deadliest roads

Africa has the world's deadliest roads: Why this could actually be a design problem—and how every trip cheats death

Every time you pass an oncoming car successfully you are cheating death, and whenever you overtake another vehicle you are knocking on heaven’s door

MZUZU is a nice town in northern Malawi, full of the usual: dust clouds, blustering hawkers, charming smiles and over-exuberant servings at food kiosks. Not long ago, I took a road trip from Nairobi to Blantyre, going all the way by public transport through Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, on a combination of large 60-seater buses, minivans, bicycles, motorcycles and small re-purposed saloon cars. Now that I think about it, I probably risked my life at least 10 times.

Mzuzu’s hustle and bustle is like many other towns I passed through on my country tour. But it’s not just the town centres that are similar, what is more surprising are the roads. The roads seem to have been designed, planned and built by the same person. The width is the same, the strategy to deal with hills and valleys the same, as is the orientation of major highways to towns along the way. Even the workmanship seems to be the same. 

In fact, the only difference between what one experiences while driving from Nakuru to Kericho in Kenya’s Rift Valley; and between Iringa and Morogoro in Tanzania is that the crazy bus driver will curse in a different language as he swerves to avoid a cow ,and swerves back to his lane to avoid an oncoming truck. 

But there’s another, more deadly similarity. Roads are dangerous in much of Africa. Kenya loses at least 3,000 people every year due to road accidents; in Tanzania it’s more than 3,600. Nigeria’s numbers are up to 15,000 every year. In 2013, according to data from the African Development Bank (AfDB), road traffic accidents constituted 25% of all injury-related deaths in Africa. 

Essentially, a continent that has only 2% of the world’s registered vehicles accounts for a full 16% of all its road-related deaths - and the most vulnerable road users are pedestrians and cyclists. By some measures, you are safer on a battlefield in Somalia than on an African road. 

Globally, about 1.3 million people die annually due to road accidents, but disturbingly, up to 90% of all fatal road accidents worldwide occur in middle to low income countries (which is mostly ‘African countries’). 

This is absurd. Car ownership in developed countries is much higher, so too is population density. So why are a people with fewer cars, and fewer people to kill, having more accidents and more deaths? 

According to the Kenya National Transportation Safety Authority (NTSA), the problem is lack of respect. 

Attempted suicide

“The drivers… have no respect for the pedestrians or the pedestrians themselves have little respect or no respect for motorists, and when we arrest [pedestrians], we charge them for obstructing motorists. Charging them for attempted suicide is not that farfetched if you survive,” NTSA director general Francis Meja is quoted saying during the recent launch of the NTSA’s Saving 100 Lives programme. 

The campaign will ramp up the use of traffic marshals, speed guns, more police action, pedestrian education and the usual slew of complex “multi-sectoral approaches” all geared to “buck the trend” and provide “swift turn around” to “an escalating social problem” that is now leading to “unwanted economic effects.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the AFDB and the Kenyan NTSA that law enforcement and regulation has a large part to play. This goes without saying. But people from “middle to low-income countries” are not necessarily more prone to speed, drink driving or jaywalking than any other place on earth. 


Sure, there are some peculiarities about how we drive here but if you’ve ever been to Los Angeles, New Delhi or Boston then you would see that crazy drivers abound everywhere. 

So perhaps the first step in trying to find a solution to our traffic accidents is asking whether people in difficult situations have a fighting chance - all things held constant, what are the chances of making a good decision with non-deadly consequences? 

Invariably, this is a question of road design. 

In my opinion, there are two fundamental tenets of design and engineering that should always be the mantra when creating anything. The first is Murphy’s Law, often quoted as, “if there’s anything that can go wrong, then it will.” 

‘Idiot-proof’ design

How is this useful from a design point of view? Well, consider your USB drive. It’s keyed and can only be plugged in one way. But how many times do you find yourself trying to jam it in there the wrong way? Now imagine if it was indeed possible to plug it in the wrong way? How many hours would you sit there and stare at your computer before you realised your mistake?

The second basic tenet of good design is: “Design it for the idiots.” Clever people don’t necessarily need good design. They are able to quickly analyse bad situations and figure out the best way out. Design is for the rest of us idiots. I am using the word “idiot” here figuratively. All human beings are prone to uncontrollable bouts of runaway idiocy. It’s a fact of life.  

In the case of road accidents therefore, there’s a need to look past blaming the victims. Yes, road accidents do occur due to human error but there are some circumstances in which the actual design leaves people no fighting chance to make the right, non-lethal decision. 

That led me to this study (pdf) on engineering standards of Kenyan rural roads done back in 1979. The research found that for most rural roads, the constructed width was sometimes as narrow as 6 metres wide, yet the law stipulated that it had to be at least 7.1 metres. The constructed width refers to the entire road width, including the shoulder. 

The study also found that the effective width (the part that we drive on) was rarely wider than 4.5m, yet the law said it should have been 5.5 metres. This may have changed over the years, but I am currently unable to find a recent Kenya Roads Standards publication, though newer roads seem to be slightly wider and actually adhering to the 1979 standard.

But from my unscientific poll and quick visual inspections on my numerous country drives, I have found that most of our roads are constructed to have an effective width of between 5 and 7m. Most of the time there’s no shoulder and if there is one, it’s hardly ever more than 1.5m wide, and most of the shoulders are constructed sloping down and away from the carriageway, which makes them unsuited for traffic /emergency management.

Why the roads are narrower than they should be is a story for another day, but let’s just say the c-word (“corruption”) is very likely to feature.

A thought experiment

Curiously and saddening is that neither in 1979 nor in 2016 do the constructed roads ever give ample provision for pedestrians or cyclists. It’s no wonder then that 20% of all road accidents reported in Kenya involve pedestrians and that most of the people who die in road accidents are pedestrians. 

Now, let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s assume we can find two sober, respectful and very skilled drivers, and have them drive two vehicles in opposite directions within the speed limit on the roads as designed, at noon on a clear day, with perfect visibility. What chance do they have of successfully driving past each other without incident? 

With a road that is 7m wide, assuming both drive bang in the middle of their own lanes, they will have a grand total of 30cm clearance. This is their error margin every single time they pass a car of equivalent size going in the opposite direction. 

That is less than the distance between the tip of your fingers and your elbow. 

If the vehicles are larger, say those 60-seater upcountry buses, then this clearance is even less. This explains how even the successful encounters usually leave passengers gasping for air and shake the vehicle a little. 

Assuming you are a stone cold sober, highly skilled driver, if you are going at 80kph on a 1979 road, then you have about 0.014 seconds to avoid a head on collision in case of any error on your part or on the part of the oncoming driver. This assumes that visibility is good and your car is in tip-top shape.

If you are on a newer, wider road, then this might grow to about 0.048 seconds. If you slow down to 50kph, you have a better shot, because your margin of error is now 0.08. But for context, the average human reaction time is 0.215 seconds. Which means, if there’s a mistake on the road there’s nothing that being respectful to other road users will do for you. 

This example refers to Kenyan standards, but I won’t be surprised if it applies to Tanzania, Nigeria, Malawi and Rwanda too - all countries where I have had the opportunity to drive around. 

The truth is, from a design point of view, how we routinely get from city to city on these buses without incident is proof is nothing short of a miracle. In fact, every time you pass an oncoming car successfully you are cheating death, and every time you overtake another vehicle you are knocking on heaven’s door. 

It is possible to design roads that give space and time to recover. It’s the bare minimum that we should aim for.


Source: Mail & Guardian Africa

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat