Far too many people are losing their lives every day, every week, every month and every year through accidents on Nigerian roads. The yearly statistics on road accidents are frightening. These figures should not be tolerated by any society that values human lives. Perhaps, we do not yet realise the deleterious impact that road accidents and the resulting casualties are having on our economy, on human resources, on families, and on the larger population. When someone dies in a road accident, an entire family and the soul of a community go with that person. In essence, both the dead and the living are victims of road accidents.
How can we compel drivers to show consideration for human lives on our roads? Are Nigerian drivers so callous, so thick-skinned, and so careless about road rules and the lives of other road users that they have little regard for everyone? How do we account for the horrible number of casualties the nation suffers through road accidents every year? Consider the following grisly figures.
In 2011, the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) reported that there were 4,765 road traffic crashes nationwide in which a total of 4,372 people were killed and 17,464 people sustained injuries. A breakdown of these figures shows that, on a daily basis, there were 13 road traffic crashes in which 11 people died while 48 people sustained injuries.
Over a 10-year period from 2001 to 2011, the number of deaths through road crashes has remained high. In 2001, a total of 9,946 people lost their lives through road crashes while 7,407 people were killed in accidents in 2002. In 2003, a total of 6,452 people were killed in road accidents. Figures for other years are: 5,351 people were killed in 2004; 4,519 people lost their lives in 2005; 4,944 people were killed in road crashes in 2006; 4,673 people lost their lives in 2007; 6,661 people were killed in 2008; while 5,693 people (in 2009), and 4,065 people (in 2010) were killed through road accidents. When you add these figures, you will find that a total of 64,083 Nigerians lost their lives in road accidents over 10 years.
Shocking as these figures might appear, I would argue that the statistics are understated. The figures represent only those incidents that were reported to the FRSC nationwide. Other cases that were not reported to the FRSC, as well as incidents that were not observed by officials of the FRSC, were not included in the report.
The FRSC says that its vision is “To eradicate road traffic crashes and create safe motoring environment in Nigeria”. We are definitely a long way from achieving a “safe motoring environment” in the country. That is the key challenge that faces the FRSC and every road user.
Already this year, the number of people who died in road accidents is rising fast. On 5 April 2013, no fewer than 100 people died in two separate accidents that occurred near Ofosu, along the Benin-Lagos expressway, and in Okija (along the Owerri-Onitsha expressway). These accidents occurred nearly one week after 18 people lost their lives in an accident along the Lokoja-Abuja road.
There were various accounts of how the first accident occurred along the Benin-Lagos expressway. Regardless of how the accident happened, no fewer than 80 passengers, most of them in the luxury bus, were incinerated on the spot. That accident involved a luxury bus, a truck and a petrol tanker. The fatalities that occurred along the Owerri-Onitsha expressway were attributed to a trailer whose driver lost control and collided with vehicles approaching from the opposite direction. Two buses were seriously damaged in the incident in which most of the passengers lost their lives.
In all the accounts of the two incidents, reckless driving, excess speed, and failure to observe traffic rules and road conditions were major factors. The high number of deaths recorded through road accidents should have prompted an urgent and serious federal review of the situation. However, in a country in which federal officials do not care about accidents on our roads, any talk about federal intervention programme to prevent or reduce significantly the disasters that occur on the roads will remain a mirage.
Official statistics on road accidents highlight several problems. First, the report shows the total disregard we have for traffic rules and other road users. Second, it shows that many vehicles that operate on our roads are not roadworthy. The decrepit vehicles should have been taken off the roads and dumped where they should be dismantled. Third, many people who operate vehicles in Nigeria are not officially licensed or trained to operate motor vehicles. In our system, anyone can drive a vehicle because it is easy to obtain driving licences without undergoing training. Fourth, the high number of fatalities on our roads represents an adverse vote of confidence on the ability of the FRSC field officials to enforce road rules, to discipline or prosecute erring drivers, and to halt the bloodshed on the roads.
There are too many careless drivers on the roads. How do we stop these kamikaze, suicide-prone drivers from killing themselves and other careful road users? Anecdotal evidence suggests that careless driving is the most frequent cause of road accidents in the country. If this is the case, why hasn’t the presence of FRSC officials served as a strong deterrent against reckless driving?
Even as we complain about reckless driving, we must also identify the absence of speed limits on many roads. I have heard some drivers ask self-righteously: How can I observe speed limits when there is none? So, if there are no speed limits, how can anyone enforce speed limits? Many roads do not have signs that signal to drivers the acceptable speed limit.
Another problem that has not been dealt with seriously is the impact of alcohol consumption on road accidents. How many times have traffic police officers stopped drivers on the road and compelled them to undergo on-the-spot breath-testing? Breath-testing of drivers for alcohol and illicit drug abuse is seen as strange because the practice is not known in our society. It is not a part of law enforcement in Nigeria. Owing to negligence on the part of drivers and law enforcement officers, you will find many drunken drivers on the road. Illicit drug users also drive vehicles without regard for the law. If the police and the FRSC cannot enforce traffic rules, who else can we rely on to do so, particularly when some mad drivers are determined to take the lives of passengers and other road users?
In other countries, there are strict driving rules that prohibit drivers from talking or sending text messages on their mobile phones while driving. In Nigeria, everything is allowed and nothing is excluded. You can drink and drive. You can talk on your mobile phone and drive. You can watch video while you drive. You can even have your meal and still drive. You can drive without fastening your seat belt. Motorcyclists can ride without safety helmets.
If you are caught infringing road rules in Nigeria, there are ways you can talk yourself out of trouble. You can brag about your identity and high social status. You can threaten the police officer or FRSC official with a sack. You can shout or sneeze in the face of the officer. If you are a “Big Man” or “Thick Madam”, life will be much easier. You can send your house boys and maids and thugs after the officers who “harassed” you in public. We seem to have a way of settling issues when we break laws that are largely unenforceable in Nigeria.
Informal references to the certainty of life and death are often used as suitable excuses by reckless drivers to justify their death-defying stunts on the roads. In fact, the FRSC Corps Marshal, Osita Chidoka, once alluded to this practice when he explained the laid-back attitude of Nigerian drivers who misbehave on the road. He said: “A driver who overloads his vehicle, drives at top speed, regardless of the nature of the road, disobeys traffic signs with impunity and operates in a manner reminiscent of one on a race-track, cannot in all sincerity blame God if he lands himself in a crash that claims his life and those of his entire family members travelling with him.”
The rising number of fatalities on our roads should inform the government and all agencies that have responsibility for enforcing the rules of safe motoring that it is time the nation rolled out tougher laws. We need stricter road accident prevention strategies. The plan must be aimed to eliminate corruption in the process of granting driving licences and in the process of enforcing road rules. The strategy should include prosecution of traffic offenders such as those who drink and drive. The new rules must be backed with sustained and vigorous information campaigns designed to promote awareness about safe driving.