Nicole Ahuumuza Rubondo: A life cut short on E. Africa’s killer roads

Tuesday January 21 2020

Dear Tingasiga,
The horror of very premature and sudden death struck a young girl this past weekend. Nicole Ahuumuza Rubondo, the daughter of Ernest and Alice Rubondo, was killed in a motor accident on Saturday near Fort Portal, Toro. She was only 16 and had been looking forward to her O-Level examination results and a return to King’s College, Budo, to continue her academic dreams.
We feel frustrated because Ahuumuza is one of numerous Ugandans who have died on our country’s motorways, with guaranteed more deaths before this year is out. Just as we were grappling with Ahuumuza’s death, news of three deaths on the Hoima-Kampala highway flashed on our screens.
Uganda, which loses an average of 10 people every day in road traffic accidents, has the highest road fatality rate in East Africa. This is unlikely to surprise anyone who has travelled on Ugandan roads lately.
There is a driving recklessness that borders on murder-suicide intent. Buses and matatus (taxi minivans) seem to have relegated basic laws of physics to an underground archive. These death machines hurtle along the treacherous and narrow roads at speeds that suggest drivers high on mind-altering substances. Reckless overtaking in areas with clearly marked prohibition of such actions is a dance with death that pulls in other road users.
We are especially angered by Ahuumuza’s death, and those of many others, in what is supposed to be the last year of the United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011-2020). Things were supposed to be getting better.
Two of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were to “halve the number of deaths by 2020” and to “provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all by 2030.” However, in Uganda’s case, we are driving in reverse, with no hope of meeting these desirable goals.
According to the 2018 Report of the Road Safety Performance Review of Uganda, carried out by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, between the years 2006 and 2016, “the recorded road crash fatalities rose from 2,597 to 3,503.” This was an increase of 25.9 per cent. The annual cost of accidents on Ugandan roads was estimated at Shs4.4 trillion ($1.2 billion), representing about 5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
The reviewers reported that the road safety culture and attitude were declining. Besides a weak leadership for road safety, it appeared that the society as a whole had not embraced the urgent need to act on this critical problem.
While the entire report contains highly valuable information, one paragraph is worth highlighting. “Uganda’s road infrastructure is generally unsafe. Most of the roads are single carriageway without a median, many with steep shoulders and few opportunities for overtaking, resulting in many head-on collisions. And most roads lack facilities for non-motorised users.
“There is inadequate land-use planning, with numerous examples of unsafe access to the highway. Road safety engineering knowledge within the responsible government agencies at national, municipal and local levels is very limited. There is no deliberate and systemic road safety engineering work, and road safety audits are not regularly undertaken as appropriately qualified and experienced staff are lacking.”
Up to 90 per cent of Uganda’s imported motor vehicles are cheap used ones. “Mandatory vehicle inspection was suspended 20 years ago,” the report continues, “and the effort to re-introduce inspection has met resistance from different circles, including from the political leadership.” Though operational, the country’s four vehicle inspection centres have limited usage.
Whereas the above are key factors in Uganda’s road carnage, the most important cause of accidents and deaths are poor driving habits. Over-speeding, risky overtaking, non-use of seatbelts and driving while drunk or high on drugs are some of the major culprits.
Whereas the boda boda (motorcycle taxi) has provided improved transportation as well as job opportunities for many young people, the industry is unregulated and unsupervised, with many operators completely incompetent and either unaware of basic traffic rules or just happy to ignore them. The motorcycle operators and their passengers ignore Isaac Newton’s Laws and other basic rules of physics, with predictable consequences.
The UN report states: “ The driver licencing system needs to be urgently improved. Currently, driving standards in Uganda are of poor quality, with driver behaviour leading to a large number of accidents.”
What is the solution? Needless to say, road deaths are non-partisan affairs. Every road user, regardless of religion, ethnicity or political affiliation, faces a high risk of sudden death because of their own behaviour or the foolishness of others. Whereas prayers for safety on the road are important and highly encouraged, we need to act fast to reverse this preventable cause of death.
First, the country’s Legislative Action Plan on Road Safety need to be fast-tracked, along with sufficient funding to embark on mass education with a view to behaviour change by all road users. Second, strict enforcement of current traffic laws, with severe penalties for those who break them, including hefty fines, long suspensions of driving licences and even a spell in prison, should be implemented without delay.
Third, motor-vehicle inspection and regular retesting of all motorists at their own cost, should be implemented. Driving a motor vehicle, include a boda boda, is not a human right. It is a privilege that demands the ability for the operator to pose minimal risk to passengers and other road users. Why should the consequences of a reckless driver’s foolishness be borne by innocent road users?
Fourth, the Uganda National Roads Authority and all other departments responsible for the country’s roads should, as a matter of urgency, address the deficiencies that the United Nations report highlighted two years ago.
Fifth, immediate roadside resuscitation, stabilisation and evacuation to well-resourced trauma centres should be availed to all road users, not just to the well-heeled and connected.
Ahuumuza’s life has been cut very short. It is impossible to feel the pain and crushed spirits of her parents and her family. One searches in vain for words to comfort them. We try to make sense of the senseless and feel utterly helpless and angry that Ahuumuza’s life has ended when it was just beginning. All we can do is to hope that we shall see a time when Uganda’s roads are safe; when a motor vehicle ride or a walk along the road is not a death sentence.