The opening of the Lakeshore (M5) Road in the 1980s was a relief to people travelling between Nkhata Bay and Ntcheu districts.
The distance between the Northern and Central regions was suddenly reduced. The road signs on that stretch assured road users of safety when travelling.
Ceaphas Mzungu, a frequent user of the road, says before the road construction, travelling from Nkhata Bay through Lilongwe took ages.
“My father used to sell fish. There was a good market in Blantyre then, but it was a long journey travelling from Nkhata Bay through Lilongwe. Sometimes all our fish could rot before reaching Blantyre,” Mzungu says.
He recalls the small dusty road which cyclists would use to connect to Ntcheu, but it was not safe. He says it passed through forests and bushes, and people would be attacked by robbers and thieves.
“M5 changed all this. We now travel few hours to connect to Blantyre from Nkhata Bay,” says Mzungu.
Unfortunately, it is not only road users like Mzungu who found relief in the new construction of the road. Some vandals have taken advantage of the road signs for their own personal benefit.
Today, driving between Salima Turn Off to Sharpevalle is not as safe as before. The road signs along this stretch have been vandalised such that accidents are frequent.
“We need to pray for the road. These days, two months do not pass without an accident on this road,” says Fr. Andrew Mtendere, a Catholic priest at Sharpevalle in Ntcheu.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki is on record as having described road signs as the second driver.
“Avoid vandalism, keep road signs on. Road sign is the second driver,” said Kibaki during the official opening of a road in Kenya.
Without the second driver on the road, careless driving and frequent accidents follow, says Kibaki.
And this is the situation on the M5 Road. In 2011, 61 road accidents were registered, while last year, the number rose to 63, according to Ntcheu Police public relations officer Gift Matewere.
This is just a fraction of the road accidents registered on Malawi roads every year.
“We had expected that road accidents along the M5 would decline, but the opposite has happened. Partly, the accidents are a result of people removing road signs and over-speeding. They are not guided,” says Matewere.
He says some of the vandalised road signs were once replaced, but people continue to remove them. He says people use the metals for making hoes, knives and slashers, among other things.
Matewere says his office has intensified traffic patrols on the road to control over-speeding and vandalism of road signs.
But what does the law say on vandalism of road signs?
Section 119(2) of the Road Traffic Act prohibits any behaviour that may endanger or cause damage to traffic on the road.
The Act says any abuse of any facility or behaviour on the road attracts a penalty of a fine exceeding K20 000 (about $58) or one year imprisonment.
Director of Road Traffic Directorate (RTD), Jack Manong’a, laments increased vandalism of road signs.
“Vandalism of road signs has become a serious challenge to the nation. People forget that we put these signs for a purpose. Driving without knowledge of what lies ahead is dangerous and that is what is contributing to too many accidents in the streets of the country,” says Manong’a adding that recently many guard-rails have been lost to vandalism.
He says this year, his office is sensitising people on the importance of road signs and the need to keep them on the streets.
Annie Kandoje, acting director of National Road Safety Council (NRSC), says her office is planning to take a different course in civic educating the citizens on preserving road signs.
She said her office last year put aside a huge sum of money to sensitise students in schools along the road but there was little change.
“We sensitised many students from schools along the main road and we replaced some of the vandalised road signs, but today they are not there. There is a big information gap on who owns road infrastructure and that is the course we are taking this year. We want them to know that road signs are theirs and they are there for their own benefit,” she says.
Kandoje adds that it is worrisome that vandalism of road signs is increasing despite many efforts from both her office and the Road Traffic Directorate.
Both Kandoje and Manong’a revealed that Malawi is losing huge sums of money in replacing vandalised road signs, apart from increased cases of road accidents. He feels team work is the last resort.
Currently, the offices say they are working together in fixing a rumble surface at Salima Turn-off where many road accidents have also been registered over the years.