Death on the Road

On Wednesday evening, February 17, 2016, a long-distance passenger bus operated by the government-owned Metro Mass Transit (MMT) collided with an “articulated truck” carrying tomatoes on a highway near the northern town of Kintampo.  At least 71 people died in the crash, while at least 13 others were seriously injured.

bus crash ghana

Within Ghana, the accident spawned national conversations about the dangers of the road.  This accident was a particularly violent example of increasingly common conversations about road safety, accidents, and the risk of the road.  President Mahama expressed his condolences to the victims and their families on Twitter.  National and international news quickly picked up the story, which was passed among Ghanaians and expatriates along with commentary about the persistent failure of the state to address road safety.

Friends in Ghana brought the accident to my attention immediately, and we all commiserated on social media.  Such a deadly accident stirred up long-standing fears about the dangers of the road by anyone who has spent much time in Ghana.  Even as I argue that drivers have been unfairly maligned and misrepresented in national conversations about road traffic regulation and infrastructural development, I also have to acknowledge this very real danger (as do drivers!).

The poor conditions of vehicles and the lack of maintenance is widely discussed by drivers and passengers alike.  But those poor conditions seem abstract until you are forced to confront the realities of the road and the risk of death and injury that increasingly define experiences of automobility in Ghana.  I returned home one day after work to find the remnants of a deadly trotro accident.  The destroyed vehicle sat on the roadside, torn open from the collision, covered with the blood of the schoolteacher in the front seat who died in the crash.  I warned friends not to travel via “trotro” on long distance trips after numerous personal experiences of dangerous and high-speed driving.  When one friend’s family members were in an accident in the Volta Region that resulted in skull fractures; brain swelling; emergency surgery; and frantic calls to Ghana’s only neurosurgeon, to their embassy, and to insurance companies attempting to arrange a medical evacuation, I banned myself from those vehicles and insisted that my friends find alternatives.  Those alternatives are, however, expensive.  Privately-hired taxis, rental cars, and luxury buses with highly trained drivers can cost hundreds of dollars per day–a cost that is out of reach for most Ghanaians and most foreign researchers, development workers, and volunteers.  Government-sponsored buses run by organizations like MMT or the State Transport Company (STC) provided one of the few remaining affordable and safe options.

STC ghana

The accident at Kintampo cast increasing doubt on even STC and MMT services.  Friends concluded that the only safe way to travel between cities is to drive yourself.  More and more people seek to purchase private cars, both as symbols of elevated socioeconomic status but also as forms of insurance against the danger of the road.  These accidents, after all, always involve large vehicles–trotros, buses, articulated trucks, tankers–rather than private cars, which are more nimble and can be directly controlled by the owner.  Private car ownership, in other words, takes your life out of the hands of entrepreneurs who, people argue, are interested in maximizing profit over ensuring the safety of their vehicle, themselves, and their passengers.

Last summer I, too, started looking into the logistics of car ownership in Ghana.  Trotros in Accra are one thing.  Traffic is so slow that serious accidents are less common than on inter-city or long distance routes.  But between major cities–Accra to Cape Coast; Accra to Kumasi; Kumasi to Tamale–accidents are common as vehicles navigate narrow and poorly maintained roads, speeding around sharp corners and overtaking at the top of hills, causing major deadly collisions.

These deadly accidents are inevitably followed by renewed calls for road safety through government policy and regulation.  Organizations like the National Road Safety Commission create community outreach and public engagement programs to encourage responsible driving practice, sponsoring public campaigns to increase awareness of traffic laws and handing out awards to private and commercial drivers for good driving practice.  The government, likewise, regularly trumpets new road transport infrastructure projects and implements policies and regulations that seek to control driver practice.  Many of those regulatory regimes focus their attention on commercial drivers who can be more directly controlled through professional drivers’ unions like the GPRTU, PROTOA, and Co-Operative.

Some of those efforts have achieved a degree of success.  The relatively intense regulatory regime of the late-colonial period created a class of drivers defined by their high standards of training, professional behaviors, respectable uniforms, and name badges.  Relatively intense policing and law enforcement resulted in fines, fees, and jail time for those who were caught disobeying the law.  Colonial laws like the 1934 Motor Traffic Ordinance even went so far as to regulate drivers’ height and weight alongside licensing requirements.  And yet, even despite the risk of being caught, older drivers reported regularly flouting the law as part of a negotiation or balance of the risk of driving work.  Overspeeding, overloading, and overtaking illegally placed drivers at risk from legal consequences that could result in license suspension and the loss of their livelihood.  But risky behavior also endangered the physical safety of drivers and their passengers.  Risk, drivers argued, could not be eliminated.  Rather, the best drivers could “manage” risk through skill.  In moments when particularly intense attention were paid to driving practice, like when Ghana switched to the right side of the road in 1974, accidents decreased through both more vigilant driving and higher concentrations of policing.  Accident numbers were much lower throughout the changeover, and the National Redemption Council, led by Col. Ignatius Acheampong, sought to capitalize on these improvements to produce more lasting changes.  As the conversation over the February accident suggests, however, those efforts–and all subsequent efforts–have failed to halt death on the road.  They also largely fail to address the constantly increasing numbers of private vehicle owners who have varying levels of driver training.

Ghana is not alone in its struggle to ensure road safety.  In 2015, the WHO estimated that car crashes cost the global economy $500 billion per year.  Accidents are now the most common cause of death among youth, ages 5-29.  Countries like Libya have incredibly high numbers of fatal car crashes–as many as 73.4 per 100,000 people.  Ghanaian accident rates of 26.2 fatalities per 100,000 are much lower than Libya or even some of its neighbors like Liberia, which has a fatality rate per capita of 33.7 per 100,000 people.  And yet, as the national and international news coverage of February’s accident makes clear, Ghana is often defined through its high rates of traffic accidents and accident-related fatalities.  This discourse suggests what people in Ghana would tell you:  statistical rankings mean little when your life is at risk.

Ghanaians who do not have access to safer transport have turned to alternative languages and cultures that are used to negotiate the fear and danger associated with the risks of the road.  In the years just after independence, drivers and passengers reported encounters with ghosts or spirits which disabled vehicles that left drivers vulnerable to theft and other criminal attacks or caused vehicle malfunctions that resulted in accidents along major highways, such as the Accra-Tema Motorway.  As anthropologist Gabriel Klaeger argues, many other Ghanaians also appeal to the realm of religion to ensure spiritual protection for themselves, their vehicles, and their communities.  Drivers place talismans in their vehicle to protect them along the road, and communities who exist along the roadside perform sacrifices to appease dangerous spirits that are seen as the cause of frequent accidents in their community (for a comparable example, see Adeline Masquelier’s work on roads in Niger)

These debates about road safety highlight two competing and fundamentally different attitudes and values associated with roads as a kind of public good and a tool of economic enterprise.  Those contradictions might be specific to Ghana in some ways.  They might also reflect some sort of broader global contrasts.  Identifying the contradictions are little comfort to those who lose family members to fatal accidents.  But understanding those contradictions might be essential to finally making real progress on road safety.  Until then, lots of Ghanaians will be praying for the safety of themselves and their families.  Or buying their own cars and driving themselves.

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