Tuesday May 10, 2011was the day when Diriba Kuma, Ethiopia’s then minister of transport, told the public that Ethiopia had prepared a ten-year “national traffic safety strategic action plan,” for the years from 2012 – 2022. His announcement didn’t come out of the blue. In March 2010, the UN general assembly had recognized and discussed a topic long overdue, and was initiated by Russia: “The tremendous global burden of fatalities resulting from road crashes.” Following the usual discussions on the floor, the general assembly asked all member states to dedicate the period from 2011 – 2020 as “the Decade of Action for Road Safety” and work for it. It was aimed primarily at “stabilizing and eventually reducing” the unacceptably high number of causalities caused by motor vehicle accidents in countries all over the world.
It doesn’t come as a surprise therefore that the former minister, now the mayor of Addis Abeba city, commissioned Ethiopia’s traffic safety strategic action plan. In addition to the UN’s push to make roads safe for everyone using them, Ethiopia is, by an old statistics from the ministry of transport, a country where there are 70 lives lost per 10, 000 cars. More than half of these lives lost are pedestrians, 20% of whom under the age of 18. Latest but unofficial estimate from the city’s traffic police office (acquired by this magazine) puts that number to an average of 120 lives per 10, 000 cars.
Almost half of these fatalities are registered in the capital Addis Abeba.
Addis Abeba is a city which woke up to the challenges of an urban center only in the past decade thanks to a humiliating defeat in 2005 of the ruling EPRDF in the hands of a chaotic opposition coalition. That fateful election resulted in the ruling party’s first move to come up with its urban development plan that was meant to address the grievances of the city’s dwellers (shortage of transport was one of them) who snatched all 23 seats of the city’s council and gave it to an opposition coalition barely experienced in running a city.
But perhaps partly as a result of a hastily organized urban plan, almost ten years later there is hardly anything that qualifies the city of Addis Abeba to the name that many of us fantasize to use – the diplomatic capital of Africa. There are a number of convincing reasons why Addis Abeba is faring way behind other cities even by the standards of some worse off countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of them is the ever dreadful way in which the city’s traffic flow is being managed by the city’s transport bureau and the city’s traffic office; using the streets of the city has now become perilous for everyone.
No single offender
It is a daunting exercise to try and hold accountable a single authority responsible for the mess the city’s transport system is experiencing today and the toll of lives its dwellers are sacrifying. That is because the culprits are not just authorities who failed to manage the city’s traffic flow, but almost everyone who is using the roads for one reason or another.
The national traffic safety strategic action plan announced by Diriba Kuma include plans to see increased traffic mobility, road expansions, effective vehicle inspections systems, placements of state-of-the art traffic light systems, the building of dedicated lanes to serve heavy trucks, and a better management of the city’s driving schools, among others. Four years later a closer look into each of these efforts reveal that the traffic safety strategic action plan is constantly assaulted by the disorderly implementation of each of the details included in it and conducted by none other than the different government institutions. These institutions include the Ethiopian railways corporation, the Addis Abeba road and transport bureau, public utility offices such as telecom, water and sewerage as well as electric power, and the city’s traffic office.
Eight month after Diriba Kuma announced the action plan, for example, the Ethiopian Railways Corporation (ERC) has commenced the construction of the Addis Light Rail Project that includes two major rail tracks extending to a total of about 35-kms and stretching to two major routes that cut through the heart of the city.
No less important than the enthusiasm the government wants city dwellers to feel about the construction of this light rail project is, however, it is being undertaken in a manner that is increasingly looking like not only it’s ill-planned but also contrary to many standards a given country should implement to minimize road fatalities.
It is during this ongoing construction that city dwellers woke up to a city traffic governed by the law of a jungle as virtually all traffic rules, scarcely respected as it is, entirely violated by almost everyone (pedestrians drivers, construction workers and businesses included).
Worse still, the yellow and gray fences separating the rail tracks from the roads stretch, at times, for as long as three-kms, leaving pedestrians with no option but resort into a deadliest way of crossing the roads and the rail tracks. Exits from the various railway stations cut through almost half of a lane used by constant flows of vehicles; little plan is spared to the fact that commuters disembarking from the light rails will have to jump to these lanes to go about their business as pedestrians. These are lanes, which are, under normal circumstances, reserved for fast driving cars. What the Ethiopian Railways Corporation wanted is to build the Addis Light Rail Project and that is what it is doing. The unrelenting cost of this construction to human lives is none of its business.
It’s the driving too
Other plans included in the national traffic safety strategic action plan – vehicle inspections systems, placements of state-of-the art traffic light systems, the building of dedicated lines to serve heavy trucks, and a better management of the city’s driving schools – have never been worse off as they are today. A new automated system applied for vehicle inspection couldn’t help take vehicles that should belong to a museum off the streets of Addis; the few places where placements of state-of-the art traffic light systems is installed are under the constant mercy of the power corporation; Synotrucks on the streets of the city have caused anguish in many households as they keep on bringing death and destruction; and when they are not selling driving licenses, the city’s driving schools continue to suffer from an ill-planned implementation project by the city’s transport bureau that saw most of them shut for no alternative.
But these are not the only determining factors. By many standards Ethiopians are the worst drivers ever to be found on planet earth. The streets of Addis Abeba are home to drivers ranging from those who don’t understand a single road sign to those who know the rules but are arrogant enough to follow them because it’s easy to disrespect the system. As of late, offending every traffic rule imaginable on the road has become the new normal both for drivers and pedestrians. The number of death tolls caused by traffic accidents in the city has become too ghastly to comprehend. According to a latest survey by the city’s transport bureau vehicle road accidents dominated the accident situation in the city with over two-thirds of all injuries and fatalities involving pedestrians.
But drivers and pedestrians are not the only ones to blame. The city’s traffic office implements a useless and inefficient way of punishing offenders that sees repeated offenders still roaming around city roads with up to 50 tickets unpaid.
Dealing with the ghost
It is commendable that as of late the implementation of urban plans have seen major cities like Addis Abeba grow at a better rate than was the case before 2005. Addis Abeba is experiencing a breathtaking growth of road constructions. It is all good, but urban planning should not equate horrendous cost to human lives. Part of the reason is lack of coordination among state enterprises – construction works by these enterprises often leave behind (for months in many instances) holes in the middle of busy streets, creating immeasurable stress on vehicle mobility and pedestrians; alas, no authority is seen taking corrective measures against such inexplicable institutional recklessness. That must come to an end.
Whether it is adopted because of the UN’s call for member states to work for “the Decade of Action for Road Safety” or in keeping with a modest urban development plan, the national traffic safety strategic action plan and the clauses included in it should not be up for implementation by one city authority and violation by another. At the receiving end of this mess is the human sacrifice to unnecessary cause.
The city’s traffic office should also do a better job in making sure offenders stay away from the streets; it must make offending more expensive than the pleasure of committing the crime. There are countless ways in which this can be done better than issuing tickets that are only good to collect meager amounts of fine from offenders.
The streets of the city of Addis Abeba can no longer be governed by the law of the jungle; city dwellers have seen enough road vehicle death and destruction. Also equally important is whether we like it or not the city stands more chances to be referred to as ‘the diplomatic capital of Africa’ for other reasons if not for the way authorities and dwellers chose to govern its streets. It is time the city lives up to this expectation. So far, no one has more chance to see through the effective implementation of the national traffic safety strategic action plan than Mr. Mayor, the man who first commissioned it as a minister.