Road Safety in Ethiopia: The Need for a Shift in Emphasis

Dec 7 , 2019
By Henok Girma , Matts-Åke Belin (PhD)

The emphasis on road user behavior should not downplay the role of the other components of the road system in promoting safety, write Henok Girma and Matts-Åke Belin (PhD). Henok Girma is a PhD student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the focus of his research is on the moral implications of traffic safety policies. Matts-Åke Belin (PhD) is senior policy adviser at the Swedish Transport Administration and adjunct professor at KTH Royal Technology Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

In a recent article published on Addis Fortune[vol. 20 No.1021] on the increasingly worrisome state of traffic safety in Ethiopia, Hanna Haile claimed "There may be many factors that cannot be changed right away, but changing the attitude of drivers to value human life more than their vehicles will make a quick difference…’’

As to what needs to change urgently in the process of addressing one of the biggest public health challenges facing citizens of the country, Hanna states, ‘‘The value drivers behind the wheel give to human life is much less than the value they put on their vehicle.’’

She is right. Many drivers do act and behave the way she depicts in her article. However, the article committed two original sins that road safety work in Ethiopia has been committing, perhaps since the start of modern traffic safety work in the country.

By calling for an immediate change in driver behavior, the article oversimplified the complexity involved in achieving the required behavioral change in road users. Creating a safe culture is definitely not something that can be changed right away, and this could be for many different reasons, but most importantly, because it is simply difficult to change human behavior.

This is even problematic when the emphasis of road safety work is on promoting strategies that seek to achieve behavior modification through mainly short-term interventions that are not sustainable over time. Ethiopia needs a drastic improvement in the state of traffic safety, and it is time that safety work in the country move beyond the excessive reliance on behavior modification through education, campaigns and training and start emphasising the importance of safe road infrastructure, safe vehicles and emergency services.

The days of relying on behavior modification of individual road users as the best strategy in promoting traffic safety is obsolete. The world is moving toward an emphasis on technology and innovation. If radical and long-term success is needed, the country better invest in interventions that are scientifically proven to bring long lasting safety benefits.

Hanna’s article also erred in assuming that it was mainly drivers that give less care and value to life on the road system.The whole transportation system in the country is designed and functions in such a way that the safety of road users is compromised for the purpose of promoting mobility in the road system.

Even much more than the drivers, the system designers have disregarded human life in the design and operation of the road system. The main concern of road transport systems in the country has been on increasing accessibility of transportation through the construction of roads and the importation of vehicles, and not that many people are concerned with what type of roads or vehicles serve the purpose best.

When new roads are built, they usually tend to be wider and straighter with the intention of facilitating smooth traffic flow. It is assumed that the wider the road is, the less likely crashes will occur.  However, roads are also built this way mainly to cut travel time. It is quite common to hear government officials referring to the short time it takes to reach some place as a benefit of new road infrastructure.

We should not forget the fatalities and serious injuries that are brought on due to unsafely designed roads. Why do many vehicles keep crashing on newly built asphalt roads in different parts of Ethiopia, even if the road is usually wide and strait?

We could judge the drivers and blame them for causing most of these crashes. We might be right, and research supports us, because usually driver behavior is the dominant factor in crashes. However, research also indicates that these types of road designs tend to influence driver behavior negatively from the point of view of safety. The straighter and wider a road is the more it nudges drivers to speed; and remember, speed is what kills!

There is a need to go beyond the old ways of designing and instituting the road infrastructure. We believe that a road transportation system that build roads without integrating safety features into the design is equally responsible as the driver who is an immediate cause for a fatal crash.

The fact that there is a serious problem with driver’s behavior in Ethiopia is undeniable. Some drivers recklessly speed, some fail to yield to pedestrians and cyclists, and some drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Others drive without proper training.

It is also important not to forget the role of the behavior of other road users. A significant number of fatalities and injuries could have been avoided had the pedestrian or the cyclist behaved in a way the traffic rules require of them. It is believed that factors related to road user behavior account for up to 95pc of traffic crashes in road traffic systems.

Then it is logical that traffic safety work emphasizes the dominant role that behavior plays in promoting traffic safety. In the desperate attempt to create the good road user, public resources are then expended on training, educating and policing. Therefore, Hanna’s plea for an immediate change in driver behavior perfectly fits this traditional approach to traffic safety work where creating the "perfect driver" is one of the major objectives. The problem is the over emphasis they place on behavior modification.

However, in many countries of the world, people do not just demand roads but mostly safer roads that would accommodate road users' mistakes. Countries that are currently successful in their traffic safety work have shifted their emphasis to constructing and instituting such road infrastructure. Ethiopia also needs this shift in emphasis.

Traditional safety work seeks to prevent all accidents. Achieving this goal, it was believed, requires adjusting road users’ behavior. Policing and enforcement also falls in this category of interventions. What then is the problem in this approach?

The traditional safety work assumed that it is only road users who are problematic and that the rest of the system is perfect. An attempt was made through intensive education, training and policing to help adjust the road users to road system requirements. This failed to take into account the fact that human beings are cognitively fallible. No matter how much you educate, train or police road users with the intention of adapting them to the traffic system, there will always be a chance that they could make a mistake that, if not proactively managed, could lead to a fatality or a serious injury.

It is the recognition of this fundamental fact which led Swedish traffic safety experts to relinquish the desperate attempt to prevent all crashes and rather only emphasize crashes that cause fatalities and serious injuries. Commenting on the Swedish Vision Zero traffic safety policy, one of the architects, Claus Tingval (Prof.), once said: ‘‘Today’s systems assume that humans don’t make mistakes. If you make a mistake for two seconds, you might be killed. We have effectively been forbidden to crash since the 1920s. But the system should tolerate mistakes, and this policy says explicitly that you should design the system on the basis of human failure.”

This is important in that it not only shows the neglect in the traditional approach of this fundamental human fact but also indicates the importance of shifting from the over emphasis on behavior modification to that of a systems change.

The emphasis on road user behavior should not have downplayed the role of the other components of the road system in promoting safety. Vision Zero puts the ultimate responsibility for traffic safety on the system designers and not on the individual road users. Road users are still expected to be responsible and respect rules, but remember, they are fallible and they could make mistakes.

Road system designers are responsible for designing the system in such a way that predictable road user mistakes will not lead to a fatal crash. It is now required that the road system adapts to the needs and capabilities of the road users and not the other way round.

But how can a system that accommodates human error be created?

The best strategy is to design the roads in such a way that takes into account another fundamental fact about human beings-physical fragility. A scientifically determined level of external violence that the human body tolerates should be the starting point for the design and functioning of the road system. According to this principle, there is a limit to the level of an external violence that the human body can survive.

If a car moving at a speed of 50km/h or above hits a pedestrian, the likelihood of death is more than 90pc. However, it was determined that people will most likely survive a crash with a car travelling at the speed of 30 km/h or less. When higher speeds are of necessity, the principle required the physical separation of vulnerable road users from the road space used by fast moving vehicles. Therefore, the major strategy in preventing fatalities and serious injuries in Vision Zero committed countries is decreasing the speed to at least 30 km/h in areas of the road system where there is interaction between vulnerable road users and motor vehicles.

Decreasing the speed will not in itself bring the required change, because it is still the individual driver who has to adjust herself to the traffic regulation. Many drivers will continue to break the rule and this will be more problematic in countries that have lax police and legal enforcement like Ethiopia. To achieve the required speed reduction, road safety experts have to come up with new innovative road and street designs.

In Sweden, for instance, one common characteristics of the road system is that the roads are narrower and tend to have a lot of curbs to help drivers operate their vehicle within the acceptable speed limit. Another important feature of the current Swedish system is its roundabouts. By reducing vehicle speed, roundabouts decrease the severity of crashes that occur at intersections.

Roundabouts are highly effective at preventing head-on and left-turn collisions, which are the major causes of fatalities and injuries. This means that roundabouts are preferable over traffic lights, despite the fact that they will lead to more traffic crashes. Remember the goal is not to prevent all crashes but only the serious ones.

The current state of the traffic safety problem in Ethiopia makes it necessary that we prioritize and implement different sets of measures in addition to the ones we used to relentlessly pursue in the past.

Now is the time to rethink our responses to these and many other questions if significant safety improvement is to be achieved both in the short and long term.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 07,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1023]

By Henok Girma ( Henok Girma is a PhD student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the focus of his research is on the moral implications of traffic safety policies. ) , Matts-Åke Belin (PhD) ( Matts-Åke Belin (PhD) is senior policy adviser at the Swedish Transport Administration and adjunct professor at KTH Royal Technology Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. )

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