Snuffed out

While statistics may tell a story, they can never capture what the families and loved ones endure when preventable road crashes claim lives or maim.

20 September 2019 | Accidents

JANA-MARI SMITH

A total of 101 people have died in 335 car crashes around Namibia in the past month.

Experts agree that driver attitudes, and passengers' acceptance of risky driver behaviour, are at the heart of the problem.

They say the majority of crashes are preventable if road users take basic road-safety principles seriously.

“It's definitely a crisis,” Percy Openshaw of Crisis Emergency Services, a first responder who has attended to hundreds of crash sites, said this week of the high death toll on Namibian roads.

He believes it is likely that nearly all the fatal crashes in the last month could have been prevented.

By 13 August, the Motor Vehicle Accident (MVA) Fund had noted a 5% decline in fatalities compared to the same period last year.

By 15 September, crash fatalities had shot up by 8% - from 323 to 424 deaths since 13 August. The number of accidents for the year to date was up from 2 168 to 2 503.

“There is no end in sight for the mayhem currently on our roads,” warns Aubrey Oosthuizen, the West Coast Safety Initiative's coordinator.

Deputy Commissioner Amalia Gawanas, the head of NamPol's Traffic Law Enforcement Division, says fatal crashes leave behind traumatised survivors, families and communities.

“We lose people who were supposed to work for the nation; they are dying. Our future leaders are dying. We are losing a lot of young people,” she warns.

The MVA statistics show that compared to last year's numbers, there has been a 113% increase in the number of children aged 10 to 14 who have died in road accidents this year.

Asked whether enough is being done to stem the bloodshed, Gawanas says: “Definitely not. Law enforcement is struggling; the road-safety fraternity is struggling.”

Gawanas says increased political will could play a major role in addressing the problem though.



Needless

Oosthuizen stresses that in his experience, the current outcry is bound to die down.

“Sadly, after the funerals, everything will just go back to silence and square one.” In his view, the rocketing number of crashes is not a new crisis. “It's just the reality.”

He says sustained road safety is based on the implementation of the 'Five Es': education, emergency services, enforcement, evaluation, and engineering.

“Should you have a part or complete failure in any one or more of these components you will sit with an adverse scenario like in the present.”

Oosthuizen urges Namibians, including those with the political sway needed to boost road safety, to start addressing the problem with the urgency and consistency it deserves.

“Why do we always treat the symptoms? Why don't we focus on addressing the actual root causes? Why do we always have an excuse on offer for our inactivity?”

He says despite the weekly bloodbath, the problem is largely ignored.

“When we do speak up about road safety, it's only when it hits close to home. Then it's too late.”

Oosthuizen says the question every day is: “Who is next?”



The root

Gawanas says the issue of road safety is unquestionably linked to people.

“Whatever we say about root causes, it comes back to persons. It's driver behaviour and attitudes.”

Moreover, she says passengers must take responsibility and are part and parcel of the problem if they remain silent when drivers act irresponsibly or illegally.

Basic safety precautions, such as wearing seatbelts, keeping to speed limits and self-evaluation of driving competency, are the responsibility of drivers and passengers alike, she believes.

“It boils down to ownership and self-respect. People can't wait for traffic officers to tell them day and night.”

Openshaw agrees that the biggest problem is attitude. “It's not about driving fast, or drinking, but about attitude.”

Gawanas says new policies and guidelines on road safety are needed and political pressure would help speed up their implementation.

“If political people can come to the table, then we can do something.”

Such policies include a demerit system for penalising drivers, stricter alcohol limits, strengthened driving-school requirements and improved competency tests.

Gawanas says various agencies are all trying in different ways to address road safety but this fragmented approach is unhelpful.

“We need to start talking the same language.”

Additionally, the police and their road-safety partners cannot take sole responsibility for the problem, especially given current constraints.

“We have 2.3 million people. If 2.3 million people take law enforcement seriously, then we will have 2.3 million law enforcers.”

Openshaw and Oosthuizen are less hopeful.

Oosthuizen feels there is “neither a workable plan of action, nor the will from the parties to step to the forefront and lead us to bring about change.”

Moreover, if a plan were in place, its implementation and the willingness to sustain the effort would be likely hurdles.

Openshaw says the situation will not improve, primarily because “drivers think they are better than they are”.

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