Chibombo disaster: are we a reactive nation?

17 Feb

It was an ordinary cloudy Thursday morning. Plans had been made. A family visit. Some trading and an important business meeting. A critical delivery to a customer. An opportunity for a job if the interview went well. A new start at college finally.

All these and many others were the plans of the passengers on the Lusaka bound Post Bus from Ndola and the truck which collided that fateful morning. The truck plunged into the passenger bus as it tried to avoid a Land Cruiser overtaking the bus.

Unfortunately for over 50 people involved in this horrific accident, none of their plans would come to fruition. They lost their lives in the carnage. Instantly, joy turned to sorrow. The earth’s soil opened up to receive blood and not the rain water that morning.

It is a heart rending end to so many lives in an instant. Zambia received the news with shock. Homes panicked, wondering whether a relative or friend had been on that bus.

This accident brought to the fore the nation’s response in varying ways. From the emergency services to cries of anguish from ordinary citizens. The events leading to the tragedy and the aftermath once again raised pertinent questions.

Most of these sentiments have been highlighted before. The fact that they have arisen entails that they have been ignored at worst. If not, they have not been attended to satisfactorily at best.

This is what prompts me to wonder whether we need to wait for disaster before we act on certain things. How many more lives must be lost before executing recommendations made?

If there is any message the Chibombo accident presents, it is a cry for us not to be reactive. Such painful loss can be averted.

A reckless decision worth 50 lives

Anyone that travels on our highways frequently will agree that too many careless drivers are on these roads.

This recent accident was a result of an unfortunate poor decision made by a septuagenarian retired farmer from Mkushi. According to information available and eye witnesses, he was overtaking the bus at a blind spot.

Many a time, we see vehicles zoom past at breathtaking speed. Sometimes even with oncoming vehicles from the opposite end. Unfortunately, there is minimal control to curb this on the road in the absence of cameras, road patrols or speed traps. What is the point of having the speed traps when all drivers know where they are, slow down as they approach them and immediately go above speed limit when they are past the police?

The lack of such interventions on our roads is sufficient recipe for the indiscipline we witness. In the Chibombo case, it resulted in the loss of breadwinners, fathers, mothers, babies and vital human resource the nation requires.

Drivers, both competent and otherwise, make reckless decisions which lead to avoidable blood spillage. Simply because, the highways offer leeway and traffic breaches go unpunished.

The statistics speak for themselves how this chaos is costing the nation. As per the Road Traffic and Safety Agency (RTSA) records, in 2011 there were a total of 22,570 accidents with 1,670 deaths. Sadly, in 2012 these figures spiked to 28,247 accidents and 2,255 deaths. It does not seem to be getting any better.

RTSA needs an urgent boost

With such alarming statistics, it cannot be disputed that RTSA needs support. There have been views expressed to the extent of blaming RTSA for such accidents.

I do not think they are to blame. To a significantly large extent, this is something beyond their capacity. How many staff do they have to patrol our roads consistently? Can they cover the span of our inner city (or town) roads and also monitor the highways? I think not.

One measure that could help is that of enlisting the help of volunteers. The more people we have on the road with authority to enforce discipline, the higher the chances to curb such mishaps. Structured criteria for selection can be devised to ensure responsible citizens are incorporated to support the Agency. Corporate entities can also be courted to assist with their identified willing staff to volunteer.

From a cost perspective, the Agency may only need to invest in sirens and the attire required to provide identity for the volunteers. With necessary identification, they will carry relevant authority to flag erring drivers down.

Appropriate guidelines and penalties will also need to apply. This should include drastic punitive action such as the suspension of one’s license.

A call for professionalism

The fact that capacity may be an issue hampering operations does not absolve RTSA agents and Police officers of responsibility when accidents occur. Reports abound of unprofessional and corrupt elements that perhaps contribute to breaches on our roads.

It is not strange to see Police vehicles that are not in roadworthy condition but they drive along as though it were a normal thing. Drivers that have been flagged down for overspeeding or breaking all sorts of traffic rules usually get away with it. All it takes is the exchange of a few kwacha notes and the error evaporates like rain during an African summer.

These are pointers to reasons the gloomy picture is not getting brighter. The very people tasked with the responsibility of ensuring sanity on our roads, are in the forefront of disregarding the basic rules. They are facilitating the wrong we need to eliminate on Zambian roads. These are the bad eggs that continue tarnishing the image of the institutions they serve, the catalysts of the carnage costing the nation valuable lives.

Whether salaries are low or domestic pressures strong, integrity and consistent professionalism must prevail. RSTA staff and the Police must exhibit exemplary behaviour. As interventions are explored to deal with the rot on our roads, charity must begin at home. The challenge must be thrown in the RTSA/ZP “home” to clean up and be in the forefront of doing the right thing. RSTA must not turn a blind eye to wrongs on the road. ZP must immediately get their battered vehicles off the road and only have roadworthy ones traversing our highways.

The behaviour of all their officers must be above board. The erring staff must be punished and know the consequences of unethical behaviour without being shielded by bureacracy or institutional inertia. The sanity we yearn for on our roads must be the ultimate aspiration of each and every member of RSTA and the ZP. This likewise will be the expectation from any volunteer that is co-opted to support these teams.

Long overdue investment in emergency services

The other side to the aspect of professionalism has to do with our emergency response teams. We may have well intentioned individuals serving in these teams, striving to be outstanding professionals. But they can only do so much without all the required tools and resources.

This has been a widely discussed and chorused plea. Is there anything to show that this has been taken as a priority? There is no evidence to support this assertion. How many times do we hear of fire engines getting to burning property with water leaking? Do our response teams swing into action swiftly when an emergency is reported? What causes them not to respond as expected?

The Chibombo accident has once again brought this challenge to life. It cannot disappear without deliberate action and investment. The accident happened in the early morning of 7th February but by midday, efforts were underway to remove some trapped bodies according to news reports. Bodies and victims were put on trucks to get them to the nearest hospital. Whether this was due to the extent of the accident or the lack of necessary equipment, I can only speculate.

The police, prisons, military and health personnel demonstrated their commitment and offered their best under the circumstances. However, this clearly painted the picture of how dire our emergency services are. There cannot be a louder plea for substantial investment than this accident. Lives can be saved with the right equipment and speedy responses. Even the soon to be introduced regulation for motorists to undergo mandatory first aid training cannot be a substitute for efficient emergency services. Motorists and local communities can offer first aid support at accident scenes but this must be complemented with the expertise of the emergency response teams.

Again we ask “where is the dual carriage?”

We cannot afford to keep discussing the same things or wait for accidents to happen before we embark on progress. The plans for the Lusaka-Kapiri dual carriage have been on the cards for a while now. The same can be said of the Kitwe-Chingola plans. The concern though remains that they are just plans for as long as nothing actually happens. How many lives must be lost before someone’s conscience is troubled enough to make this happen?

There have been positive statements made by the Road Development Agency (RDA) recently, suggesting that these works will finally happen. A contractor will be selected and announced by end of February this year. That sounds fine but at this stage I opt to be sceptical and a doubting Thomas until I see a kilometre of the dual carriage way. This is not because I would rather be a pessimist but simply on account of having been here before. We talk and promise so much but deliver so little.This has to end now. More action is the only way to deal with our present challenge.

There can be no more verbal assurances without action to follow through. This must not be another case of rhetoric and politically correct utterances. Those 50+ lives lost in Chibombo are a sobering reminder that talk is cheap and can cost a nation so much.

The government must now show the will to deliver on this with urgency. It is a fact that this is not a challenge arising from a lack of resources. Just a snapshot review of the Auditor General’s reports will show how much resources can be made available for the appropriate investments. This is more a case of prioritisation or the lack of it. The intention must be deliberate for this execution to happen.

Quality must be the signature

As these works are undertaken, quality must be emphasised at all stages. There have been numerous reports of shoddy works on roads, a possible indication of weak oversight, poor supervision or corruption. We must see durable roads that will last and not the pathetic ones we have witnessed that develop craters months after being rehabilitated or constructed.

This should not be tolerated any more. It is not only reckless driving or unprofessional police and RTSA staff that may contribute to accidents. Even the state of the roads is a critical factor to be considered. There remains no doubt now that we need smooth roads with clear and consistent road signs across the entire span of our road network.

While the RDA embarks on these inevitable road projects, their attention must not be paid only to responding to the pressure in the aftermath of the carnage on the roads. They must be explicit on the need for quality works and the contractor selected must have no illusions about this. You may not tie statistics to it but undoubetdly, quality works can save lives on our roads and RDA must see to it that this is delivered without compromise.

A time to be proactive

We do not need another catastrophic accident. We should not lose more lives and shed more blood on our roads. The Chibombo disaster has yet again exposed our reactive approach to cardinal issues. All the plans and statements get loud when we are reeling from loss or a crisis such as this recent one. This is precisely what we need to steer away from, so we can plan better and be exceptional in execution.

Maybe just maybe, our nation can curb such shattering accidents and the resultant insane loss of precious lives.

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Posted by on February 17, 2013 in Opinion


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