By Jocelyn Edwards
We stood at the edge of the road sweating under the mid-day sun, watching the cars come barreling towards us down the highway. Six lanes of mini-buses, expensive SUVs, beat-up taxis, and even a transport truck or two stood between us and the other side of the road.
I was with two students from the Ghana Institute for Journalism. We were leaving the newspaper where we will be working for the next two months, heading to do an interview in another part of town. Unfortunately, our new workplace happens to be located on the outskirts of Accra, just off of a highway named for that most infamous of American presidents, George W. Bush.
A multimillion dollar project aimed at upgrading Ghana’s road infrastructure, the George Walker Bush Highway was built with funding by the United States and opened in February 2012. Since then however, it has become notorious for accidents and has been dubbed a “death trap” by the Ghanaian media.
According to statistics from the Ghana police service quoted in Ghana’s Daily Graphic newspaper, 52 people have been killed on the highway, a 14.1 kilometer stretch of road, since its inauguration. A further 248 people sustained injuries.
Built in a densely-populated area in a part of the world where many people walk as a primary means of transportation, traffic lights and crosswalks on the highway are spaced kilometers apart. The few pedestrian overpasses are located even farther apart. Indeed, it can take up to half an hour to walk between them.
As a result, many pedestrians take their chances crossing the road between the overpasses, waiting for a break in the traffic and then darting across.
As one pedestrian who crosses the highway everyday told the Graphic, “I know it’s risky. But why should I walk all the way up there to the footbridge and walk all the way back again to take a vehicle home when the station is just across the highway?”
The deadly highway has drawn protest from a number of groups, including an association of private university students whose members must cross the road each day to attend classes. The National Executive Council of the Private University Students’ Association of Ghana called on the government to “immediately act to save the lives of pedestrians, drivers and motorists plying the road.”
Still the deaths on this particularly dangerous stretch of roadway in Accra are just a fraction of the number of traffic accidents that occur in Africa each year.
Despite having the smallest number of vehicles, Africa has the highest rate of traffic fatalities in the world, according to a 2013 report by the World Health Organization (WHO). Though Africans own just 2% of the vehicles in the world, deaths in traffic accidents on the continent account for 16% of all road fatalities worldwide.
To put this in perspective, according to WHO numbers, the risk of dying in a traffic accident in Africa is 24.1 per 100,000, while the risk in Canada is just 8.8.
In Ghana specifically, there are an average of 2,000 traffic fatalities annually according to the minister of transport.
The WHO’s Global Status Report on Road Safety points to a number of factors for the alarming number of deaths on African roads.
Many countries lack policies to ensure the protection of vulnerable road users, like the pedestrians who must cross the George Walker Bush highway each day. Few countries have comprehensive laws to address specific risk factors such as speeding and drunk driving. And even where laws do exist, authorities often fail to enforce them.
Hence, while the speed limit on the Bush highway in Accra is apparently eighty kilometers per hour, many cars reach speeds of much higher than that. Police cars on the road are a rare sight and rarer still is the sight of officers actually enforcing the law. Elsewhere in Accra crosswalks or “zebra crossings,” as they call them here, do exist but motorists rarely pay them heed and I’ve never seen anyone pulled over or ticketed for just driving through.
Pedestrians here in Ghana, and Africa in general, don’t have many rights, a fact that was driven home to me as my students and I tried to cross the George W. Bush highway on our first day of work.
To get across the road, we were forced to do what so many others do on the speedway everyday. We waited until a space opened up between the cars and then dashed across. But I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if one of us might had tripped or otherwise delayed for a second in middle of the road. It’s disconcerting to think that one of us might have been the highway’s latest fatality.