Improved technology and databases to monitor traffic are helping distressed motorists but bad driving remains a problem
West Africa ranks near the top of the world's deadliest roads. In five of the region's countries, there is no national law to enforce wearing seatbelts. Globally, only Eritrea has a higher rate of road deaths per capita than Nigeria.
However, a new road safety model means Nigeria is now the only African country on track to achieve the World Bank's global push to halve road deaths by 2020.
In the federal road safety commission's headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, a dozen employees take calls from across the country. Around 100 calls are fielded each week, dispatching cars, ambulances and volunteers to distressed motorists. On a giant screen, blinking dots track the agency's 400 patrol cars – and ensure the vehicles aren't themselves speeding.
The service, set up in 2008, is at the heart of an attempt to reduce road deaths in Nigeria. "We have done a lot through technology and database improvements," said the agency's director, Osita Chidoka. "Every Nigerian knows someone who has died on our roads. Now people don't always have to depend on villagers, who may mean well but are not the best qualified people to be the first to reach an accident scene. I have had people say to me: 'You don't know me, but you saved my life'."
Statistically, at least, things are looking up: registered crashes have more than halved, to about 5,000 annually; deaths are down a third, to 12 a day. Many other accidents may go unreported. "Overall it's positive, because our ultimate goal is to bring down deaths," said Chidoka. "But we need to make more investments in enforcement and a culture of safety."
Under a pilot scheme, solar-powered speed cameras in the capital, Abuja, can track new licence plates. That coincides with 100,000 more bookings dished out year-on-year. Offenders include on-duty patrol officers – which, the agency says, shows that it polices its own employees. "We are trying to improve visibility through technology. Not only are you caught, but people know you're caught," Chidoka said.
Engineering is also helping. Nigeria has increased the number of paved roads in recent years, often sponsored by multinationals that are also ploughing money into training schemes for drivers of articulated lorries.
But there are glitches. Unrolling digitised licence plates nationwide has faltered amid erratic registration price increases, and the speed cameras work intermittently. Complaints of extortion by traffic police are routine.
But officials say the most formidable barrier to road safety remains poor driving. "Speeding is the main problem," said Chidoka. "Road safety is also a class issue in Nigeria – there's a perception that it only affects poor people. The political will isn't there among people who think: 'I have a good car, an expensive car, so I am safe'. Or they can afford to fly longer distances."
In an average week, 1.5 million Nigerians cram on to buses. Others turn to motorcycle taxis – often driven by people with no formal training, in overcrowded cities, and that sends the numbers of fatal crashes spiralling upwards, officials say.
Road signs, which have popped up across the country, have a limited impact. "In Abuja, where the roads are really good, we still see high incidents of accidents," said Janet Adepegba, the information technology director at the centre. "You can put the best driver in the best car on a terrible road, or a terrible driver and car on the best road, and both can have the same results.".