Are Namibian roads the most dangerous in the southern African region? And how prepared are our drivers to survive on these roads? New Era asked around. By Catherine Sasman WINDHOEK The deaths of five young people at Mariental about a week ago shook the nation as they read harrowing blow-by-blow accounts of the circumstances of the accident. To experts in the transport sector this tragic incident appears to have been a combination of inexperienced and reckless driving, which is characteristic of the endemic dangers on Namibian roads. "I personally think we have extremely irresponsible drivers," said Robert Benade, Regional Manager of Jowells Transport Namibia, a subsidiary company of the South African Crossroads Distribution. Some of the road accidents on our roads, said Benade, are often attributed to the use of vehicles that are not roadworthy, overloading, drivers and people that are "just plain and simply reckless and negligent". According to Silvanus Ilonga, a driver trainer at the EMS Driver Academy and the only national qualifications drivers' assessor in the country, Namibian drivers are rated as the worst in Africa. "Although Namibia has relatively good road infrastructure - when compared to many neighbouring and other African countries - drivers here fail the test on the road safety score," said Ilonga. And perhaps it is not surprising. According to a 2005 survey, as many as 54 percent of the drivers on our roads have "bought" or obtained their licenses through bribery. This means that only 47 percent have obtained their licenses going through the proper channels where driving skills are rigorously assessed and evaluated. What makes matters worse, said Ilonga, is that it was found that as much as 81 percent of Namibian drivers are considered to be heavy drinkers, a phenomenon commonly termed as "weekend drivers". Putting the readiness of the enforcing agencies' readiness to our road challenges, Ilonga and "top guns in the police" went out to "challenge" one of the road blocks that are permanently set up outside towns, where one of the 'top guns' with a beer between the legs while behind the steering wheel got a 'wave-through' treatment from the traffic officers on duty. "Instead of arresting the driver, the officers on duty allowed him through; such favouritism can cause major accidents on our roads," he said. "Common road accidents are as a result of a lack of sufficient driving skills, because people do not take enough time when taking decisions, they do not allow others' mistakes on the road, and they often fail to adjust to the changing weather and road conditions," he said, teaching defensive driving to a group of workers from a corporate company that requires its workers to undergo this training before they are allowed to use company vehicles. According to the Motor Vehicle Accident Fund (MVA), there were 486 accidents in which 67 people were killed. The highest fatality rates were in the Oshana, Ohangwena, Erongo, and Khomas regions. Vehicles overturning proved to have been the highest incident, followed by vehicles crashing into animals and pedestrians, as well as head-on collisions such as 'sideswipes' and 'front-rear' crashes. Another peak period for vehicle accidents is during the Easter period. Last year, there were 31 accidents, which ended in seven fatalities and 27 people seriously injured. But this proved to be a sharp decrease from the 2006 statistics, where the number of accidents during Easter was as high as 106 with 30 fatalities. The 2005 National Road Safety Council statistics - the most recent available - say there was a marked rise in the number of motor collisions over a period of five years. These statistics showed that the majority of accidents occurred in the Khomas Region (100 864), followed by the Oshana Region (18 070) and the Otjizondjupa Region (15 349). According to the council, however, the road safety situation was more favourable to countries such as Botswana and South Africa. "However, one has to be cautious when comparing South Africa and Namibia as the two may not be comparable in terms of population, road infrastructure and number of vehicles, in which the latter is at a lower level," the council advised. Owner of EMS Driver Academy, Louis Conradie, is however of the opinion that Namibians are indeed more reckless. In countries like Zambia and Tanzania, accidents are mostly ascribed to bad mechanics of the vehicles. And although these countries' road use in cities and larger towns are often incomprehensible to road users in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana - for example - where a road sign or traffic light signifies something and where cars mostly stick to lanes instead of the chaotic traffic tangles in other countries, there accidents are not so severe and fewer because drivers normally drive slower. In Mozambique, he illustrated, spot fines - where an errant driver gets a N$1 000 fine on the spot for transgressing speed zones even just by five kilometers per hour - are effective deterrents for speeding. "I have a strong feeling that most accidents happen because of a negative attitude of our drivers on our roads. Our drivers tend not to be concerned about their own safety and that of others," he said. One consideration is the long distances between places and narrow roads that make drivers irritable. "And then they take chances." To make roads safer and drivers more sensitive to the environment on the roads, a number of initiatives are being implemented like defensive driving training offered to mini-van taxis - considered a huge road risk - which, according to Benade, has had a very positive effect on the drivers of these vehicles. The EMS Driving Academy has also trained a number of drivers from big, commercial truck companies, private companies and government agencies through which drivers are empowered to understand and translate driving practices and skills to an extent where accidents are minimised. This is imperative, said the academy, due to the growing liberalization and promotion of cross-border trade in the region and the concomitant movement of goods trucks, as well as the emphasis on promoting Namibia as a gateway to some of the landlocked countries around it. There is also a growing commitment from Government to invest in Namibia's strategic location through the maintenance of high-quality roads, ports and telecommunications systems. Training is provided in areas such as the transportation of dangerous goods such as fuel and other gaseous substances; the operation of a vehicle combination; the operation of rigid and light vehicles; forklift driving; remedial training; and in-cab training. An important element is defensive driving, which Ilonga said simply means how to handle a vehicle to avoid accidents. This roughly includes crash avoidance skills, vehicle control and handling methods, managing fatigue and driver's tiredness, and how to drive in different and adverse conditions. The academy mostly trains heavy vehicle drivers, after submitting them to a "psychomotor performance" test. This, said Conradie, means testing the driver's accident-proneness, hence the controlling processes and motor (kinetic or muscular) behaviour of any particular driver. The test measures a person's ability to concentrate or to keep his or her attention under monotonous conditions like when driving long distances, driving on unfamiliar routes, and so on. Traits such as carelessness, disregard for accuracy, impulsiveness, low motivation, over estimation of abilities, fatigue or fluctuation in concentration are identified. This test, said Conradie, clearly shows if the driver has the learning potential when he or she starts very slowly with the work to speeding up gradually without making mistakes. It measures critical elements such as a person's ability to make quick and accurate decisions and take action; the person's reactive behaviour under changing conditions; the physiological functional capacity of the eyes and more importantly the person's cognitive processing of visual contents; and a judgment test. A driver's profile - using the Vienna Test System, which tests the suitability of a driver for a specific task - is then developed to tailor training to the needs of a specific driver. Such information is important, said Conradie, not only for training purposes. Drivers' profiles are used in countries where driving is considered a privilege and not a right in analysing the profile and not the number of accidents. "There is a correlation between real driving behaviour and poor results on the concentration under monotony (COG) test; it was found that with a low COG, drivers make more mistakes when merging or changing lanes, showed faulty behaviour at intersections, and were often endangering pedestrians," Conradie said. Interestingly, he pointed out, it is found that females are better long-distance drivers because of their ability to concentrate and focus more than their male counterparts. At shorter distances, however, females are found to be more distracted - presumably because they rush more between family and work duties in towns and cities. This has piqued the interest of commercial truck companies to incorporate more females as drivers, but considerations of the females' safety along long, isolated roads have so far deterred many companies from actually employing women. Poor scores on reaction times are confirmed to correlate to unpredictable driving behaviour and incorrect usage of controls like indicators and gears. The stress tolerance test relates with the tendency to drive at inappropriate speeds or fluctuating speeds, or driving too closely to vehicles ahead. Drivers - here, heavy vehicle drivers - were found to be slow on these tests. "It is not necessarily speed that kills, but how drivers handle their vehicles," said Conradie.
2008-05-16 00:00:00 10 years ago