Statistics show that every December, hundreds of drivers and their passengers are injured or killed on Zimbabwe’s roads.
This December, children will lose parents, and parents will lose children in the most brutal, terrifying and violent way. Breadwinners will be maimed or killed, plunging families into poverty. Road accidents are greedy, lurking monsters, that should be feared, and can be avoided.
The festive season sees a spike in Zimbabwe’s already too frequent road accidents as people travel to visit relatives, and the happy mood raises the recklessness of drivers.
According to a 2015 World Health Organisation report, Zimbabwe is the 19th worst country globally for road deaths, with a rate of 28.2 road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. This amounts to 3,000 deaths annually.
While road traffic accidents are an issue nationwide, Harare accounts for roughly half of the country’s total number of road traffic accidents. In Zimbabwe in 2014 alone, 42,794 road traffic accidents were recorded by the ZRP. To put this in perspective, a total of 77,098 vehicles were registered at the time, meaning that for every two vehicles on the road, there was one accident.
Why is this shocking rate our reality? Stakeholders in the motoring and road safety industry agree that recklessness tops the list.
Why are Zimbabwean drivers so careless?
Various socio-economic factors have led to a terrible driving culture where anything goes. Public transporters must rush to hit tough targets, and private vehicles must dodge potholes, and navigate poorly marked roads. Running red lights, overtaking on the left, and stopping anywhere to drop off passengers are behaviours that Harare’s motorists will encounter every day. It’s infectious too, and whilst it was previously the norm for kombis to drive like this, private vehicles are now also taking to the verges and ignoring road markings to get ahead.
Sean Quinlan of the Road User’s Association (RUA) says that it boils down to a lack of self-discipline. “The great majority of motorists will have studied enough, will have read the Highway Code, done their provisionals and done enough driving tests to know what the dos and the don’ts on the road are. It might be a reaction to other bad drivers or being over-policed, but people have decided ‘I’m going to drive exactly the way I like and no one is going to stop me’,” says Quinlan.
The Marketing Director of the Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe, Proctor Utete, added that reckless behaviour tends to increase at Christmas. “People are over excited at this time of the year. Many people also buy cars in December. I would say that human error is the number one cause of traffic collisions, that is – mistakes made by other drivers.” For the cautious driver, the actions of others are the biggest threat.
What about enforcement?
The police have become a huge source of anger and tension on Zimbabwe’s roads. Their interest in seemingly minor offenses has been labelled as a cash-grabbing approach to policing, and has come at the expense of their roles as protectors of the people. The RUA is keenly focussing on this issue. Quinlan says, “If you look at ZRP enforcement there seems to be a complete disregard of how motorists are driving but significant focus on the technical issues – having a service validity label on a fire extinguisher is more important than stopping a stream of kombis coming down the wrong side of the road. ZRP focus on the soft issues, on the soft targets, and completely disregard the hard targets like kombis and others who see themselves as above the law.”
While the police have taken a very hard line against absent fire extinguishers and honeycomb reflectors, they have not done nearly enough to prevent drivers from running red robots, speeding, or drunk driving. Many argue that if they couldn’t get away with being sloppy drivers, they would stop driving carelessly. Utete of the TSCZ concurs. “There should be more police on the road and meaningful enforcement of penalties imposed on drivers for driving without care or caution,” he says.
What about our roads?
Between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of roads in good and fair condition declined from 73% to 60% and continues to drop rapidly. Urban roads, especially in Harare have remained in a largely pathetic condition and have contributed to Harare’s high rate of road collisions as even responsible motorists are forced to weave in and out of their lanes to avoid damaging their vehicle in one of Harare’s many potholes. This is dangerous – particularly at night, when collisions with other vehicles or pedestrians can occur. Coupled with this is a pandemic of dilapidated or non-existent road signs, poor road markings, and non-working robots.
ZINARA has refurbished some key intercity roads in recent years, and Harare’s roads are getting some attention, including better lighting, more traffic lights, and some repairs to the tar, but it’s a drop in the ocean, as the ageing road network continues to break down faster than it can be repaired.
Who cares about drunk driving?
Zimbabwe is a beer-loving nation, and lack of enforcement against drunk-driving has created a culture among party-goers that says it’s ok to enjoy a night out and drive home afterwards. This is particularly rife at Christmas time, when roads are also often wet and visibility drops due to rain.
Sarah Fox, founder of Zimpact – a non-profit community service that raises awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving – says, “Police roadblocks are concentrated during the day and there are hardly any at night. There should be more roadblocks at night in order to prevent drunk driving. There is also only one breathalyzer in the whole of Harare at Central Police station to test if a driver is intoxicated,” says Fox.
All these factors mean that the burden of safety falls on the shoulders of each individual driver. Remember that every time you get behind the wheel, like an airline pilot, you are controlling a big and dangerous machine. You are 100% responsible for your passengers, and also for the safety of other road users. Drive defensively – don’t speed, don’t tailgate, don’t drink. Do make sure your car is working well, you have good tyres, windscreen wipers, and working seatbelts that are used every time your car is on the road.
A Harare News web poll of 800 people indicated that more than 50% of road users have to pay bribes to get a driver’s licence. It has been alleged that it is impossible for drivers to pass their road test based solely on their driving skills. We also wanted to test the hypothesis that even bad drivers can get licensed through this avenue, and to see if it was a factor in the poor state of road safety in Zimbabwe.
Two journalists from Harare News went about getting licensed in the hope of recording any misdealing by VID officials. It started with driving schools, and we took lessons with several of them. Driving schools have proliferated alongside the huge increase in the number of cars on our roads. Lessons range from $3 to $15 per hour, and instructors stake their reputations on being able to guarantee their students a license.
From hours of recordings, it emerged that any instructor worth his/her salt has formed a relationship with VID officials. It also became apparent that the system is so well entrenched that no VID official would ever open up to us, knowingly or unknowingly, about their incredibly lucrative game. Even the driving schools have to play by their rules.
“First you have to find out where they drink, and befriend them away from their workplace. Then you can start to talk about your students and arrange to pay them the money they want to pass a student,” one instructor told our reporter.
Once linked up with the corrupt VID officials, instructors are able to facilitate the $150-$200 bribes which ensure that for the road test at least, the odds of passing are much higher. He explained that $50 goes to the tester, $50 to the front desk, and $50 to the boss. “They can each make $500 a day,” he said.
“The VID man will make passing the drums in the yard a bit easier, but they are afraid of anti-corruption officials that might be watching, plus other people who will see if you hit a drum,” he explained. If you can get the basics right and make it onto the road, you’re all set though, as instructors will ignore even quite serious infractions once out on the road, and choose easy routes for students to follow.
But what if a student is an excellent driver? They can try and try but won’t get anywhere without the $150 fee one instructor told us. “It’s only that the Zimbabwean situation at the moment is very bad. Nowadays the system is so corrupt to the extent that even if you do everything perfect in the test, there are some silly and small mistakes that they should not penalize you on but then they will capitalize on that. Sometimes if they see that a person is not paying, they can take you through the most difficult route for your test.”
He continued, “It’s just that the system is a bit filthy. At the end of the day you go there, you really want your licence and you are almost doing everything right. But you fail, you go and come back and pay another $20. But at the end of the day it’s just simpler to just give them what they want and you’ll get your licence.”
Whilst this extortion and corruption is blatantly unfair, what effect does it have on road safety? The RUA’s Sean Quinlan and other experts rate carelessness as a much higher factor than ignorance. “Most people know the rules, but choose to ignore them,” he said.
The corruption at the VID is a factor in the wider sense of lawlessness that has spilled onto our roads. Paying bribes has become so normal that road users don’t even flinch at it anymore, and use it to get away with dangerous behaviour.
Main Image: A truck lies wrecked on Samora Machel Avenue after a driver drove through a red light in November.
This story was made possible with support from the Investigative Journalism Fund.