Ernest Masambo escaped death at a hair’s breadth when his car plunged past the overpass bridge in Limbe, near Globe Internet offices (formerly Unilever) on the night of November 25.
The accident occurred just a day after his arrival from Botswana, where he had lived for 18 years.
On this fateful night, Masambo was driving to Makheta and unknowingly he took the dual lane being constructed to expand the road section between Maselema round-about through Kachere Township and Chiradzulu Turn-off on the Blantyre-Zomba Road.
According to a witness, Chimwemwe Banda, Masambo had entered this side of the road right after the round-about, thinking it was in use as it is bituminised. There are no road signs.
“I was driving on the road when I saw a car driving on the yet-to-be-commissioned dual lane. I thought the driver wanted to branch-off to the residential area. To my surprise, the car continued moving until it crashed down the bridge,” he said.
Banda blamed the contractors for not putting signs or blocks to warn motorists about dangers ahead.
“The contractors should have closed this part right at the beginning to warn people not familiar with the road not to use it. Look, the road ends into a bridge ahead,” he said.
But now, the contractors have blocked the unfinished road with drums.
In Malawi, lack of road signs or failure to observe them is just one of the many causes of accidents, though to a smaller extent. Just June this year, a Toyota Coaster hit a school boy on the Chiradzulu-Phalombe Road. The boy was crossing the road from the school situated a few metres from the road.
“I didn’t know there was a school ahead. I didn’t see the sign. We need signs to warn people about pedestrians crossing, a narrow road, sharp bends, bridges, diversion, and many more road features,” he said.
Vandalism of road signs is a worrisome development in the country with the Roads Authority (RA) spending about K80 million to replace them this year.
That means if there is no money, a road can be without signs for some time, a period which, an accident can happen.
However, a report from police shows that more accidents are caused by over-speeding compared to other factors such as ignoring road signs or lack thereof. This year alone from January to September, 1 299 accidents were due to speeding as drivers ignored speed limits set on national and city roads.
“And this is very dangerous. You see people driving at 100 kilometres (km) per hour on a highway where they are supposed to drive at 40 or 60 km per hour,” observes Jacob Phiri, a motorist who works in Blantyre.
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera explains that most people exceed speed limit of roads because they feel good driving in posh cars.
“You will be surprised to see that most cars involved in accidents are not old. The drivers in these cars engage in a competition of overtaking one another. In the end, causing accidents,” he says.
Unfortunately, traffic police are no longer seen with speed trap equipment by the roads; this leaves careful motorists at the mercy of other reckless drivers enjoying absolute freedom to ‘fly’ on the roads.
Apart from speeding during the same period of January to September this year, 299 accidents occured due to ignoring road signs, 245 by careless overtaking, 259 by keeping close to another vehicle and 154 by careless on-coming cars.
Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report saying an increase in average speed is directly related both to the likelihood of a crash occurring and to the severity of the consequences of the crash.
The report further cites driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs and distraction through using mobile phones while driving as other causes. And, in June, a saloon car hit a lorry at Machinjiri-Turn-off on the Limbe-Zomba Road in Blantyre as the driver in the smaller car was text-driving.
However, from the police report, it appears they are putting the blame mostly on road users and not other factors such as the state of roads and vehicles.
Yet, according to some engineers who have studied road accident trends in the country, it is difficult to quantify speeding as a cause of an accident, at least in the prevailing circumstances where there is no equipment.
“How do they measure over-speeding many hours after the accident has occurred? It is not easy to quantify speeding as it needs detailed analysis and specialised modern equipment,” argues an automobile engineer Henry Masoka.
Although here is no police report blaming poor roads, some remain potentially dangerous to travel on as they have been reduced to single lanes following erosion on their edges.
The M5, or Lakeshore Road, from Ntcheu, Salima through Nkhotakota to Nkhata Bay is in this state; potholes, eaten edges and worn out tar all make travelling on this road a risky adventure. The same can be said of the M1 from Kasungu to Jenda. And repairing of damaged roads takes ages, leaving motorists to control their fate.
But, even roads that are in good shape can be death traps—Linthipe Bridge in Dedza is a section on the M1 which is not in bad state but, more often than not, is an accident spot. Two weeks ago, seven trucks were involved in an accident at Linthipe.
This strengthens the argument that roads are also responsible for some accidents, says Masoka.
He blames it on what he calls poor designing as civil engineers fail to take into account the type of vehicles that will be moving there and considering leaving space for pedestrians and cyclists.
This observation might not be far away from the truth as a look across the country reveals some roads are not wide enough to include sections for cyclists and pedestrians; cars compete with cyclists and pedestrians to use the road.
Such roads include a section from Chinamwali in Zomba on the M3 to Liwonde and from Mangochi Turn-off to Balaka where the road is narrow and makes a head-on collision most likely especially when avoiding a cyclist or a pedestrian.
“When constructing roads, civil engineers ought to submit their designs to road safety auditors who should ascertain the usability of such roads to vehicles. After the construction, road auditors should also come to inspect. If we don’t do safety audits regularly, roads can never be safe,” Masoka explains.
When it comes to vehicles, the country has no standards for the type of vehicles that should be allowed as what happens in other countries such as South Africa.
These countries have developed standards and do not just accept vehicles that were made to suit the standards of other countries.
Among others they have considered kind of roads, weather conditions and average height of their people to fit in the cars and be able to see clearly and sit comfortably.
Here the challenge is compounded by the inadequacy of automobile engineers who can dedicate time to understanding vehicle roadworthiness and crashworthiness, says Masoka.
“So there are no qualified engineers who can do safety analysis,” he adds.
The practice, however, is that when someone purchases a car, they take it to the Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS) for testing and a certificate of fitness (COF) is issued.
Sadly, Weekend Investigates has established that some people do not have their vehicles tested by motor examiners but get COF, nevertheless. Surprisingly too, examiners seldom check the ability of the airbag to work during accident. On September 17, Weekend Nation reported that some people are still getting fake vehicle documents such as COFs and blue book papers.
Following corrupt reports at DRTSS, Anti-corruption Bureau (ACB) director Reyneck Matemba in June said fighting corruption at the institution is important for the safety of road users.
“The ACB is aware that there have been corruption cases involving the directorate’s staff and clients. It is evident that corruption in traffic management systems leads to increased number of road accidents; hence, the need to put interventions to minimise corruption,” said Matemba in an earlier interview.
Another shortfall is laxity to enforce laws regulating open trucks operations as argued by road safety facilitator and trainer at Safe Drive Consultancy Abdul Osman.
“The DRTSS and Malawi Police Service [MPS] need to act on this to avoid road accidents. Much as the permits are issued to drivers to ferry people using such vehicles, it is still against traffic rules and regulations. These cars are specifically designed to carry goods and not people,” he says.
On October 16, an accident involving a two-tonne lorry in a head-on-collision with a Freightliner truck on the Mchinji-Lilongwe Road left 13 people dead. This would not happen if traffic laws were followed. n