Pay more attention to road safety

Mugerwa (L), whose left leg was amputated after a boda-boda accident, plays football as a way of  coping with disability.  PHOTOS | ISMAIL KEZAALA

What you need to know:

  • Be cautious. Today, the theme of World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims is “Life is not a car part,” based on Pillar 3 of the Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety, which emphasises the use of safer vehicles. Two survivors  of road accidents tell Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi  their stories and how they are coping.

On the fateful morning in 2003, Myleen Kyomuhendo boarded a taxi from Lugazi on Jinja Road back to Uganda Christian University (UCU) in Mukono after overnight prayers. A few kilometres into the journey, she was involved in a tragic accident that changed her life.

The morning was misty and the taxi driver recklessly attempted to overtake a fuel tanker. A speeding bus rammed into the back of the taxi forcing  it to roll off the road.

Of the 11 passengers in the taxi, only four survived. Kyomuhendo lived to tell the tale but she recalls: “I don’t know whether it was in the course of rescuing me or when the car overturned, but by the time I regained my consciousness, my spinal cord had been fractured twice.” 

Kyomuhendo endured a painful spell; for a while, she could not control her bowels and bladder and she had to deal with an environment that is stigmatising to persons with disabilities.

“Navigating Kampala’s narrow roads with or without walkways, buildings without ramps, insensitive taxi operators and passengers, has all been hell.”

Myleen Kyomuhendo was involved in an accident in 2003, she plays wheelchair basketball. PHOTO | COURTESY

Kyomuhendo says she was discontinued from school, because the institution suspected she could have been coming from a nightclub before the tragic morning.

She would later join Makerere University on affirmative action, graduating in Human Resource Management. Kyomuhendo suffered more discrimination while searching for a job. She gave up and resorted to self-employment.

Kyomuhendo is just one among the many Ugandans who have borne the brunt of road accidents.

Alex Mugerwa, also a Makerere University graduate, lost his left leg after being knocked by a boda-boda when he was four years old. 

“For almost my entire childhood, I had to deal with being called names such as ‘Mulema’,” Mugerwa says.

Why we should pay attention

According to the UN, the risk of dying in a road traffic crash is more than three times higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries.

More than half of all road traffic deaths are among vulnerable road users: pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists.

In May 2019, police reported that at least 3,500 people had died in traffic road accidents in Uganda each year  in the past three years.

But research by the Makerere University School of Public Health, which looked at road accidents that happened in 2016, puts the mortality figures at 9,000 per year. That is nearly 25 people every day.

Dr Olive Kobusingye, the research principle investigator of the study named ‘Epidemiology of road traffic crashes in Uganda’, notes that the police figures are lower not because the authorities deliberately underdeclare the figures but because for some reasons, police do not capture some of the crashes as some cases go unreported.

“We were looking at health facility data, mortuary data, and we suppose the reason police numbers are fewer is that some of the patients who go on to die in hospitals or communities don’t necessarily get to be captured by police and they end up with fewer numbers,” Dr Kobusingye said, [Daily Monitor, May 9, 2019].

She, however, explained that these figures were not final since the researchers had only managed to reach 16 out of the 27 regions that the police reached.

The research identified speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol as the major causes of  the accidents.

Meanwhile, pedestrians like Mugerwa, were found to be victims as a result of inadequate road infrastructure.

In a 2018 survey, the same researchers found that boda boda riders under app-based companies such as Safe Boda, Uber and Taxify (now Bolt), are safer than regular boda bodas because the former emphasise the use of helmets; are trained and more likely to follow traffic rules.

Meanwhile, a study named Boda Bodas and Road Traffic Injuries in Uganda: An Overview of Traffic Safety Trends from 2009 to 2017, published March 2020 by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, notes that according to the World Health Organisation, motor vehicle crashes in 2016 claimed an estimated 1.35 million lives across the world.

These deaths outnumber those caused by traditional communicable diseases  such as tuberculosis or HIV/Aids.

The research adds that road traffic injuries (RTIs), the leading cause of death of people aged five to 29 years, affect a productive segment of the labour force and have lasting impacts on the country’s future. 

This research notes that by 2009, an estimated 100,000 Ugandans operated boda bodas, and citing other studies from Uganda and Tanzania, that boda bodas are responsible for up to 58.8 per cent of RTIs, leading to mortality and long-term morbidity. Additionally, boda boda related RTIs consume more than half of the surgical budget for Mulago National Referral Hospital.

We are all potential victims

Dr Mallon Nyati, head of the department of Orthopaedic Surgery Mulago Hospital, says most traffic accidents result from human error (either by the motorist, pedestrian, cyclist, or road neighbour) and reducing the prevalence and severity of traffic accidents requires a multipronged approach. This includes mass education, behavioural transformation and better funding.

 “We are all potential road accident victims but we don’t pay much attention,” Dr Nyati says. 

“Government and the corporate sector are very emotional in fighting cancer, heart disease, among others, but we don’t pay due attention to the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries [from accidents].”

The orthopaedic surgeon adds that corruption is a very big obstacle to enforcing the rules “but the penalties, too, are not severe enough. We should pick a leaf from other  countries, for example, Japan.”

Section 107 of the Traffic and Road Safety Regulations, 2004, states that a person who uses a vehicle which is in poor mechanical condition commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine between 15 and 60 currency points or imprisonment between six months and two years or both. (A currency point equals Shs20,000, meaning the fine ranges between Shs300,000 and Shs1.2m).

Over speeding attracts a fine of not less than 15 currency points (Shs300,000) or imprisonment between six months and two years or both; while careless or inconsiderate use of a motor vehicle attracts, on conviction, a fine between five currency points (Shs100,000) and 30 points (Shs600,000) or imprisonment for  between one month and one year or both.

But Charles Ssebambulidde,  the spokesperson of the police Traffic Directorate, says the express penalties can play a better role if they are applied instantly, say, within two days rather than 28 days. Ssebambulidde acknowledges a decrease in traffic accidents during the lockdown, since mid-March, when motor vehicle movements were restricted but  that road carnage is still a big problem. He thus concurs with Dr Nyati that containing the prevalence and fatality of road accidents cannot be achieved by a single solution.

“Without segregated roads, head-on collisions are inevitable,” he says “But we also must ensure the vehicles are in good condition.”

He adds:  “A competent, licensed driver with a bad attitude might drive a vehicle that is in dangerous mechanical condition.”

Hence the need for consistent sensitisation of all road users about traffic rules.

“Many pedestrians even have a habit of crossing the road any time, irrespective of the traffic signs. They should know that the rules apply to all road users.”

The theme for this year’s World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims is “Life is not a car part,” based on Pillar 3 of the Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety, which empahises the use of safer vehicles.

In tandem, Kyomuhendo insists that authorities need to renew efforts to ensure safety in all vehicles, mostly by strictly reinforcing the usage of seatbelts.

Coping

Under the Spinal Injuries Association, Kyomuhendo learnt sports as a tool for rehabilitation.

In 2016, she played wheelchair basketball for the Vikings in Denmark, and is a member of the newly formed national team that played at the East African Zone V Championship in Nairobi, Kenya in 2019.

Mugerwa also represented Uganda at the inaugural East and Central African amputee football tournament last year.  

Many road accident survivors are battling permanent disabilities. Some confined to wheelchairs, some on crutches, and others totally unable to move. Kyomuhendo and Mugerwa advise those who can, to embrace sports as a way of easing their rehabilitation.

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