Last weekend, on a mission to buy a pineapple, some friends and I walked to the “Amakom traffic lights” – a major intersection in my Kumasi neighbourhood, where street vendors line the sidewalks, children beg with vigor, and traffic moves at a dangerously quick pace. We bought the fruit from some young girls on the corner and watched the smaller ones play on the sidewalk while the eldest girl sliced it for us. We then crossed the street to a gas station, where I glanced out the window just in time to see a “tro-tro” minibus turn a corner at full speed and drive up onto the sidewalk through a crowd of people – right where we had been standing at the fruit stall. It fell back onto the road, still speeding, and stopped only when it hit a taxicab head-on.
Clearly, the vehicle’s brakes had failed. Less obvious was whether anyone had been injured – or killed.
According to Ghana’s National Road Safety Commission, or NRSC, the Ashanti Region experiences approximately 2000 traffic accidents every year, leading to nearly 500 deaths and thousands of injuries. Many of these can be attributed to unsafe driving and human error. But many others, like the one I witnessed, are caused by unsafe vehicle conditions.
The United Nations has declared 2011–2020 the decade for Road Safety. Ghana was one of the resolution’s sponsors, but the country’s international commitment has not visibly translated into domestic practice. The government is developing a “National Road Safety Strategy,” expected to be finalized within the decade, but when I began looking into vehicle safety laws for an Ultimate Radio piece, the NRSC could not tell me of any solid action plan to improve vehicle safety on the ground.[pullquote]”We have middlemen . . . if you go and approach them then they will do everything for you.”[/pullquote]
I learned that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, or DVLA, is responsible for inspecting vehicles and providing Road Worthiness certificates to safe ones. Commercial vehicle owners are expected to report to the DVLA with their cars every six months, where a license officer examines everything from headlights and electrical wiring to brake systems and tires. But according to Noah Martey, the DVLA Regional Assistant Officer for the Ashanti Region, problems can arise during the period between check-ups.
“Between the period of one month and six months,” he explained, “if the vehicle should have the sticker [certificate] on its windshield, and the car has gone rickety, or the vehicle has gone bad, we will not be able to get them until the road worthiness certificate expires and they are in again to have it renewed.”
Technically, the Motor Traffic and Transport Unit of the police is responsible for monitoring the road between check-ups and identifying unworthy vehicles, whether liscensed or not. But according to May Yeboah, the NRSC’s Director of Planning and Programs, there are not enough police officers on the roads to effectively complete this task.
Mr. Martey also noted the possibility that some vehicles retain illegitimate certificates. I spoke to some drivers in Kejetia market, and one of them, who also owned his tro-tro, shed some light on this issue:
“Sometimes, if the car’s condition is not good, I am not taking it to the DVLA, I will go there by foot,” he explained. “They ask me where is the car, but if you pay extra money there, they won’t ask for the car. We have middlemen over there . . . if you go and approach them then they will do everything for you,” he added.
Mr. Martey said that ultimately, the duty of maintaining road safe vehicles lies with the car owners, and encourages them to do the right thing when their cars break down. Mrs. Yeboah, for her part, said “the DVLA, the police, all of us, we all have actions to take. . . but as we go through the decade, I’m sure we are all trying to address those challenges.”
I wonder what those next actions will be – and who will step up and take them. I think of the young girls playing on the corner last weekend and hope for their sake that Mrs. Yeboah’s words are true, that somebody will begin to address these challenges and take real responsibility for vehicle safety in Kumasi.