Travellers in Sierra Leone are often impressed by the new, smooth highways built by foreign donors in the West African nation — but they are as amazed by the wreckage from traffic accidents scattered along the way.
In a country where enormous foreign aid spending has often produced few tangible results, new roads connecting the capital to major provincial towns are real achievements and a boost to the economy by significantly cutting journey times.
But the new highways are believed to have fuelled a surge in accidents and deaths as inexperienced drivers in poorly maintained vehicles speed up, prompting calls for better safety standards for vehicles and stricter enforcement of road rules, Reuters reports.
“There has been an increase in accidents, definitely,” Abou Bakarr Amara, director of road safety and enforcement at Sierra Leone’s Road Transport Authority, told Reuters.
Sierra Leone authorities do not have reliable historical data on traffic accidents. In 2009, 2,204 traffic accidents were reported in which 216 people died.
Road deaths receive less coverage than diseases such as AIDs and malaria in Africa but traffic accidents exact a heavy toll, with the World Bank estimating 70 percent of 1.17 million roads deaths worldwide each year take place in developing countries.
The cost of these deaths is estimated at $100 billion per year — or twice the amount these countries receive in aid.
Andrew Pearce, chief executive of the Global Road Safety Partnership which campaigns to cut road deaths in poor nations, said the situation highlights a wider issue with infrastructure projects in Africa where the benefits of development can be undermined by other factors.
He said four elements are needed for a safe road system — the road itself, driver training, vehicle maintenance and trauma provision.
He said often only the first of these factors was considered and donors should conduct “life-cycle risk analyses” before building new roads.
“We are building the road but without incorporating the safety features and training and education,” said Pearce.
In Sierra Leone, the European Union and the World Bank have spent about $200 million combined on road building and rehabilitation since a 1991-2002 civil war devastated the country’s infrastructure.
This has provided a boost to the economy with, for example, a new highway linking Freetown to the second biggest city, Bo, cutting the journey time from about a day to three hours.
But previously the poor state of roads acted as a kind of crude speed limit for driver who are often untrained and many illiterate, unable to read road signs.
Although police regularly set up checkpoints, they are often more focused on extracting bribes than cracking down on overloaded or speeding vehicles.
“When the roads were bad, people slowed down as otherwise they’d ruin their vehicles,” said Sama Gamanga, corporate secretary of the Road Transport Authority.
Sierra Leone, like many African countries, is a repository for vehicles considered too old in wealthier countries. The vehicle licensing body does not inspect cars thoroughly before issuing paperwork.
Vijay Pillai, the World Bank County Manager in Freetown, acknowledges road deaths are a problem in Africa, but says this is “a phase” that Sierra Leone needs to go through.
“I hope we are not questioning the rationale for improved highways – the country needs it,” he wrote in an email. “But now the country also needs better safety and compliance standards for vehicles and better driving practices.”