Sydney Kawadza Senior Features Writer
I lived to tell the tale. Surviving an accident during the festive season was getting a second chance in life, so something had to be written. Being thankful to God for getting an opportunity to pursue some burning issues related to the road carnage in Zimbabwe is in itself enough motivation.
We are in 2016 and with 130 deaths recorded on our roads during the festive season, it is a blessing to recount the horrendous experiences encountered on our highways between December 15, 2015 and January 2, 2016. According to police national spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba, there was a significant rise in the fatalities compared to the same period from December 15, 2014 to January 2, 2015.
Snr Asst Comm Charamba noted that 267 accidents occurred during the 2015 Christmas period. Between December 24 and 26, 2015, 27 people died while 168 others were injured.
I could have been one of the victims.
On December 24, a bus I was travelling on rammed into another coach going in the same direction a few kilometers from Bubi along the treacherous Harare-Beitbridge Road. Twice, the South Africa bound bus was in near accidents, avoiding them by a whisker.
But as fate would have it, eventually an accident that almost cost us our lives happened. No-one was seriously injured in the accident, but the experience was traumatic, it shook many. The front of the bus was extensively damaged, the driver sustained leg injuries and he was left extremely shaken.
The fact that he managed to control the bus and saved the lives of all passengers comforted the driver.
Police attributed most of the festive season accidents to negligent drivers or pedestrians, inattention, misjudgment and tyre bursts. The statement from the police sounded standard.
We have had these warnings, pledges and threats but more lives continue to be lost on our roads.
Who is to blame? Is it the police? Is the Government responsible? What role do transport operators contribute to the carnage? What about the drivers and their passengers?
My experience before the December 24 bus accident puts the blame on all those mentioned above.
Snr Asst Comm Charamba earlier in December announced the police would deploy 45 000 police officers countrywide to curb crime and enforce traffic laws during the period.
But my observations from the journey to Beitbridge show police laxity from the pick-up point at Mbudzi roundabout along Harare-Masvingo Highway. This is the hub for errant and overzealous bus crews.
Most buses start off their journeys already overloaded with standing passengers right up to the door. On that day, the driver only took over the steering wheel after the bus was overflowing with passengers.
The bus had been re-fueled by someone else.
So if the bus driver was not even around, who was responsible? I can bet my last dollar that a tout or unlicensed driver was on the wheel up to the time the driver took over.
There are up to 15 roadblocks on the route to Beitbridge but that bus passed most of them with its overflowing load of passengers.
But should we blame the police alone?
Government also comes under scrutiny. Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo in a statement ahead of the festive season said police would maintain a heavy presence across the country.
Minister Chombo said there would be random breathalyser tests on motorists. He called for collective stance against reckless and irresponsible driving.
Minister Chombo also assured the nation that Government would take bold measures to reduce the carnage. The fact that 28 more lives were lost compared to the same period last year leaves us with more questions than answers.
It means Government has not been tough enough in enforcing laws to curb the road carnage. Even questions are raised on the ever increasing spot fines.
But are they deterrent enough?
Finance and Economic Development Minister Patrick Chinamasa announced the review of traffic fines as from January 1, 2016 from $20 to $100. He said under the new fines, driving through red robots, overtaking against white solid lines, driving without a Drivers’ Licence and not having a foot brake would attract $100 fines.
Minister Chinamasa said road traffic fines were meant to deter against criminal behaviour. He further argued the previous standard scale of fines last reviewed in 2009 had failed to promote safety and discipline on the roads.
The minister said despite the public outcry, the fines were in fact generally lower than those in other countries in the region. However, the transporters are two steps ahead as evidenced by their budgets for the police on the highways.
Most bus crews carry money for the police at the roadblocks. Some drivers insert a $5 note in their permit books every time they are stopped at a road block.
A conductor confided that they budgeted between $60 and $70 for roadblocks.
“It’s better to spend $60 on bribes than $110 on spot fines,” he said.
That should explain why the bus crews have the temerity to overload. Government has increased the fines and I guess the transporters have increased their budgets.
Are the new fines going to be deterrent enough or they will fuel corruption? The next step is to look at the bus crews.
Some bus companies should be commended for alternating drivers.
However, there are some who aim for targets and associated profits. The driver who was involved in the December 24 accident admitted arriving in Harare in the morning before going back to Beitbridge that evening.
The accident was an indicator of fatigue. Reaction time in emergency situations is critical but most of the drivers fail to avoid accidents because they are overworked. We have enough noise about overworked drivers but who listens?
The passengers are also to blame.
After our accident in Bubi, most of the passengers boarded the next available transport to the border.
How often do the passengers raise objections about speeding drivers or other errant behaviour by bus crews? Nevertheless, in living to tell the tale, all indicators point to the need for Government action on Zimbabwe’s roads.
What explanation do we have for having such a poor road linking Harare and Beitbridge?
A road that services all traffic going to the north! For years we have had stories about the need for dualisation or rehabilitation of this road.
Transport and Infrastructure Development Minister Jorum Gumbo should be a worried man. The police can maintain their “heavy” presence on the roads and issue out spot fines as much as they want but our roads leave a lot to be desired.
Minister Gumbo says Government will announce the winner of the tender for the dualisation of the Beitbridge-Masvingo-Harare-Chirundu highway. He made the same announcement late last year.
Minister Gumbo further announced that feasibility studies had been done on the Beitbridge-Masvingo road. The works would cost Government between $1,5 billion and $2 billion.
The challenge to Minister Gumbo is on his legacy. Former Transport and Infrastructure Development Minister Obert Mpofu should be a happy man for overseeing the successful completion of the Plumtree-Bulawayo-Harare-Mutare Highway.
Food for thought, Minister Gumbo!
However, the road carnage in the previous month is a reminder to all; Government, citizens, police and transporters that we have let ourselves down. It is God’s will that I have lived to tell this tale.
The 130 people who perished during the festive season are a reminder that we have not done enough to avoid fatal road accidents.