Lawlessness, motorists’ rush for cash and travellers’ desperation to travel fast have left the Malawi’s accident-prone roads flooded with risky taxis quickly displacing minibuses.
Traffic Police say something has to give or the country’s main roads, including M1, will remain one of the world’s worst death traps which claim about 6 000 lives a year.
The spacious taxis clogging and connecting cities include reconditioned vehicles that carry more than five passengers.
They are sold in carparks and road reserves in cities.
From Chitipa to Nsanje, the spacious taxis flash past profusely as Traffic Police, who are supposed to stop them, wave them to proceed.
The vehicles, mostly Toyota Sientas and Voxys, jam city roads in Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba, especially during rush-hour gridlocks.
If you thought minibus operators were lawless, the taxis with two or three wheels will shock you all the way.
They perilously cut corners in a hurry for passengers, create a third lane on two-lane roads and overtake other road users from the no-no left side.
In the capital, Lilongwe, crazy traffic gets crazier with an influx of three-wheelers called Pajajs or Kekekes and motorcycle taxis that dangerously zigzag past traffic jams.
However, McFerson Matowe, head of Traffic Police nationwide, said the law enforcers have weighed in to stop the mess.
“All this road chaos is under our radar and we are determined to put a stop to it. Any life lost is one too many and we want order on our roads,” he explained in an exclusive interview at Area 30 Police Headquarters in Lilongwe.
Matowe said the Department of Traffic Police has analysed the carnage on all roads to correct the situation.
“Over the past three weeks, our officers have scaled up vehicle inspection, monitoring and other law-enforcement activities. This will continue until we make our roads safe,” he says.
Matowe said the impounding of lorries running as public transport in and outside cities has pushed some unscrupulous businesspersons to buy salon vehicles instead.
He said: “The businesspersons prefer spacious salon cars where they cram customers. Yet the growing business is done illegally, most vehicles are not registered as taxis and the drivers usually do not have the appropriate driving licences.”
They often operate without red number plates mandatory for passenger vehicles. Traffic laws bar city-to-city taxi runs Matowe termed “a recipe for accidents”.
“We have arrested many culprits and we thank courts and officers in the Department of Road Traffic and Safety Services [DRTSS] for helping us bring order on our roads,” he said.
Drivers of illegal taxis between Lilongwe and Mzuzu lamented cat-mouse chases as they dodge or bribe traffic officers to meet their daily targets and operational costs, including vehicles certificates of fitness, carbon tax and insurance.
“When intelligence tells me that cops are not patrolling my route, I take passengers across the two cities. But when the situation is cloudy, I pass on or sell the passengers to my colleagues at Jenda or Kasungu because they have necessary papers,” explained one of them.
The driver said traffic officers’ attempts to impound his taxi were swiftly thwarted by his boss, who has “good connections” with them.
The drivers said they have observed intense traffic checks in the past three months and most taxis are now roadworthy.
Gift Fupa, who has been driving Kekekes for over five years, says his boss warned him against “cutting corners”, but the three-wheel cycles are partly to blame for frequent traffic jams in the capital.
“We swarm the city and we have even taken over some parking spots as our stops. While we have leaders at zone levels, the structures at regional and national levels remain weak or non-existent,” he says.
The risky rush is growing as the business, which thrives on overcrowding, has to ensure passengers sit a safe distance from each other.
Matowe said Kekeke and motorcycle taxi operators contributed to traffic chaos flows and “dozens of accidents, with many fatalities,”
The machines and their drivers were not licensed and flouted city by-laws on operational sites, business safety and fees payment.
“When we called them to order recently, some operators protested in Lilongwe but they have realised that laws are cardinal.”
The police have given motorcycle taxi operators until mid-October to comply with regulations, including wearing crash helmets.
However, Matowe urged travellers to insist on roadworthy vehicles with red number plates.
He said some law-breakers get away because motorists forewarn each other about police checkpoints and speed traps.