Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beware of Drivers

I was inspired to write this morning because of unfortunate circumstances. The cousin of our driver/logistician was killed in a motorcycle accident. It is another in a series of accidents I have seen or have heard about, and I can’t sit on my thoughts anymore.

In all of my travels and work experiences overseas, I have never seen as many road accidents as I have seen here. I could not hope to count how many accidents I have passed—usually involving motorcycles. Among the most memorable were a mini-bus thrown on its side, with another car’s hood bashed in; in another, a car hit a motorcycle, whose passenger was thrown and cracked his head—blood spread across the pavement. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, but I'm frankly not sure that it could have helped him. He died on impact.

These are disturbing sights, to be sure, but what is more disturbing is the frequency with which they occur. Every day, going to and from work, and when traveling around town, I see small crowds of people, a couple of police officers, and, usually, a motorcycle on its side. Too many have died. And now, our logistician’s cousin, who came to Bujumbura from a rural area for her school vacation, is gone.

It doesn’t make me sad. It makes me angry. Furiously angry—because the fault lies with two parties: the government, and the people.

First, the government. Here, while drivers of cars should theoretically have a driver’s license (every now and then, a cop will pull over a car to check), motorcycle-taxis (“motos”) do not. Motorcycles are too expensive for many people to buy, so they are rented from people who tend to have many, purchased for this purpose. The renters, more often than not, do not have a driver’s license. Many have very little to no driving experience. They rent because it’s a quick way to make a few francs, and the result is that you have incredibly irresponsible moto drivers, who dash and dart in front of vehicles, who lose balance, who don’t know to yield at intersections. And who are these people renting the motorcycles out? Rich people. People with influence. Sometimes, they are people who work for the government. As long as the money keeps coming in, they will keep renting. Safety is not a concern for them.

The extent of government involvement with the motos is to set up roadblocks forbidding them to drive after 6 pm (which is good, because most of them do not have working headlights). But the government does not require them to have driver’s licenses, insurance, or even helmets. Compounding this is the fact that, since there are no traffic lights, police should be posted to direct traffic. (This happens so infrequently that I always notice when it DOES happen.) Since driving here is one massive game of Chicken, where everyone challenges everyone else to back down, people do not yield. They block roads. They speed up, even through blind intersections. They pull into the middle of the street before they turn, forcing their way through. And people die as a result.

I should also note that it is apparently relatively easy to buy a driver’s license here without driver’s training. Ah, corruption. Among its other undesirable consequences, it leads to the proliferation of irresponsible drivers.

Second, the people. Why? Because they continue to take moto-taxis—while people recognize that others have been killed taking them, they do not think that they, themselves, will be in an accident. (Burundians have told me this.) It’s one thing to understand that it’s Russian Roulette and take the risk anyway; it’s quite another to not recognize it at all. The argument that people who take moto-taxis do it because they can’t afford the car-taxis just isn’t credible—there are mini-buses that go everywhere in the city, and for a cheaper rate than the motos charge. They are also, comparatively, safer.

At the rate of accidents in this city, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t a critical mass of people who have been impacted. I would hope that, in this country, which has some degree of political freedom and opposition (however imperfect), such people would demand changes and increased accountability from their government. I have to grant that self-organizing for a cause may not be a frequent practice, though. That kind of political activism takes time to develop.

What’s the solution? Oh, let me count the ways. But the simplest would be to better use the Burundian police by having them direct traffic and issue fines to motos who drive poorly, who don’t have driver’s licenses, and who do not have helmets (for themselves and their passengers), and not just avail them once an accident has occurred.


Anonymous Alex said...

When in Kigali I have taken "motos" rarely but they are a much used form of transport particularly as the roads and buses become more congested - pushing more people onto "motos". My limited experience suggests that they go too fast. But at least they are required to carry a helmet for the passenger.

7/22/2009 6:01 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Rwanda is quite a different story! When I was in Kigali, I would hesitate to take a moto clear across town (if I did, I would tell him to go "buhoro cyane") but would often take them between neighborhoods. And in the rural areas (in Gisenyi in particular), it wasn't a problem at all, and was my main source of transport around town.

The difference is that, in Rwanda, the government requires that all motos have driver's permits, and the motos must have insurance and carry helmets for the driver and passenger (in Gisenyi, it was usually just for the passenger, though). And the police are strict about it!

7/22/2009 8:27 AM  
Blogger Lorgy said...

I take them occasionally in Burundi - when there aren't any real taxis around and the route I'm going on doesn't have busses - but I agree, they're scary. In a way, if the traffic here was worse, it wouldn't be as scary - Uganda in rush hour it's so chocca that no-one's moving and you're likely to be fine. Here... eech. I used to get them more often but stopped after I had one that when I asked him to let me down, stopped dead in the middle of a roundabout, with lorries bearing down on us. I was literally screaming at him to move and he got out of the way just in time. After that I decided it wasn't worth risking my life to save two dollars.

7/23/2009 4:29 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

I am happy to report that at what I call the "intersection from Hell" (at least one messy accident a day), I saw people erecting traffic lights! (Now we'll see if they work and people heed them...)

7/24/2009 6:59 AM  
Blogger Lorgy said...

Traffic lights?! Where do they think we are, Kigali?! My bet is they'll work for a month or two, then the bulbs will die and won't get replaced...

7/24/2009 7:07 AM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

I just came back from Buja and I did not see any traffic lights!

By the way, I had a few scares (I was riding my own moto) but this is nothing out of the ordinary. If you have been to Italy, it's not much different.

Advice to would-be motorbike-riders: The louder the exhaust, the safer you are (and the bigger the applause)

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