Fatal accidents raise safety concerns

HARARE - After three horror traffic accidents that claimed 24 lives in just three days last month, road traffic safety is once again taking centre stage, with public transport users and experts questioning authorities and transport operators’ sincerity in tackling road carnage.

Tragedy struck in Murewa on August 24 when a commuter omnibus driver attempted to avoid a police traffic checkpoint; the vehicle encroached into the right lane before it collided head-on with another commuter omnibus travelling to Mutoko.

Ten people died on the spot while several others were injured.

This was followed by another horror crash involving a haulage truck in Kamativi, Matabeleland North Province on August 25.

The truck, which was carrying 130 people, mainly Binga-based apostolic church congregants going for a conference in Dete, developed faulty breaks and veered off the road before plunging into a valley, killing 10 people on the spot and injuring others.

The following day, four people also perished when a pirate taxi they were travelling in burst a front left tyre before it came off the road, violently overturning four times before landing on its roof.

The fatal crashes came hard on the heels of two other horror crashes which killed 74 people between June and July this year.

In June, a South Africa-bound bus collided head-on with a Harare bound haulage truck which had encroached into its lane at Nyamatikiti, near Chaka Business Centre, resulting in both vehicles catching fire. Thirty-one lives were lost.

In July, a speeding overnight Lion King bus from Harare to Lusaka, Zambia burst a front trye and veered off the road before plunging into a gorge, uprooting trees on the way and killing 43 passengers on the spot.

Earlier in that month, 11 people perished in Mvurwi when a commuter omnibus and a private vehicle collided head on before both vehicles caught fire.

The passengers were burnt beyond recognition.

These deadly crashes are clearly a result of preventable factors: human error, disrespect of road statues and mechanical faults, all of which are avoidable.

They call for a collective national sobriety test.

Police spokesperson Charity Charamba must by now be growing a hoarse voice urging drivers to exercise maximum caution on the road, which warnings few ever heed as evidenced by these needless crashes.

These tragedies have brought the issue of road safety to light.

Questions are being raised over a number of road traffic safety issues. While many have blamed the high accidents rate on the terrible state of the country’s roads but there are many other factors to consider.

Police are attributing the accidents to careless driving — speeding, erroneous overtaking and over correcting once a vehicle starts swerving — things that all drivers learn before taking their road tests.

But seldom has the issue of vehicle fitness been brought to question outside authority work.

A senior automotive engineer, who works at the CMED, was heavily critical of the type of buses imported into the country in recent years, which have caused the most deaths. “Those buses are under scrutiny for good reason although driver error is often blamed when the buses crash. Most of them do not have seat belts, vastly increasing the likelihood of injuries and deaths in an accident. The main thing is to make sure they have got seat belts. One certain thing is that when impact occurs, the wreck ejects a number of those who would not be wearing seat belts, that is if the bus has them at all,” said the mechanic who cannot be named because he has no permission to speak to the press.

The mechanic said the extensive damage that the buses suffer cast doubts about whether they were subjected to crash resistance tests before being released into the market.

Most of the buses are imported from China.

“One only needs to see the massive damage that the busses suffer to realise that they can hardly fail surprise inspections and should never be allowed on the roads because of safety concerns,” he said.

An inquiry by the Daily News on Sunday established that there was confusion over who was the actual authority on safety issues because of a lot of duplication of duties.

The Traffic Safety Council (TSCZ) has no clear mandate over the issue and cannot enforce road worthiness of public transport.

Its role has been reduced to that of an awareness lobby group, yet it is the one which is most visible on the roads.

The obligation to enforce fitness compliance has been left to the corruption-ridden Vehicle Inspection Department (VID), a government department responsible to assess drivers’ competency and certify vehicles for the road.

The basic requirements for passenger transport drivers include a valid class one licence, a defensive licence, medical report and retest.

Police are mandated to arrest drivers that fail to produce these for prosecution but many times, they have been blamed for corruption.

There is another organisation called the Road Motor Transport (RMT) responsible for issues of road user permits and time tables.

Beyond raising awareness, there is little that the TSCZ can do.

“Whenever an accident happens, police take over everything. They handle the investigations to ascertain the cause,” said TSCZ managing director Obio Chinyere.

“If someone is found on the wrong side of the law, they should pay in full. This should be conducted without fear or favour, because nobody is above the law. When you commit a traffic offence, then your licence should indicate that offence and you should be penalised, and points taken from licence. When you incur a certain number of points which constitute you to be an unworthy driver, then you don’t deserve the licence, which will subsequently be cancelled by government,” he added.

Asked if they had a facility to check the imported buses to see if they meet acceptable standards, which include tracing their origin, Standards Association of Zimbabwe (Saz) executive director Eve Gadzikwa said: “Let me consult with those on the ground to see what they can prepare for you.” Nothing had come through by the time of going to print.

Transport management expert Richard Maipisi said errant drivers can be tamed if corruption in the country is uprooted.

“Corrupt behaviour in this country has rendered the law a mere phrase and that is scary,” he says.

“There is total disregard of the law by errant drivers and the authorities know it but they take advantage. They make a killing daily through spot fines and bribes as well as generating cash for themselves. Punitive and severe fines must also be introduced so as to discourage bad road and traffic behaviour,” he added.

Zimbabwe loses an average of 2 000 people in road traffic accidents annually.

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