Learning to Look Both Ways
Despite being one of the least motorized regions in the world, Africa bears the highest burden of road traffic fatalities. Working in Rwanda for the past three months as a Global Health Corps Fellow, numerous colleagues have shared distressing stories of family members and acquaintances killed in accidents. For people living in Rwanda traffic accidents are an all too common reality.
It had been 72-hours since landing in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. We were moving to Partners in Health’s headquarters in a rural village in the Eastern Province. Luggage was hoisted on top of the Land Rover, seat belts clicked into place, and a warm wind blew through the car as we started the 2-hour trek. Gazing outside the window as the car rumbled along, the sides of the road were littered with commuters going to work, heavy-laden bicycles carrying produce to the market, and children in bright school uniforms.
Not far into our drive, we passed a cluster of people gathered on the side of the road. Suddenly, one of the doctors in the car exclaimed, “Wait! Was that a child?” The car was quickly turned around and drove back to the scene. Approaching the crowd we saw a small girl, about 9-years old, lifelessly lying in the grass along the roadside.
We bailed out of the car and the doctors immediately went over to assess the situation. A few minutes later they returned, admitting there was nothing that could be done. Spectators in the crowd recalled the girl had run into the road while she was playing and was hit by an oncoming car. The assaulting car and its driver had sped off, supposedly to the police station.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t think of road deaths and injuries as a public health problem. However, 1.24 million road traffic deaths occur around the world every year. While Africa possesses only 2% of the world’s motorized vehicles, the region contributes to 16% of the global deaths. According to WHO Global Report on Road Safety, the chances of dying in a road traffic accident in Africa are 24.1% compared to 10.1% in Europe. For example, in 2010 the estimated roadside traffic deaths for Nigeria and South Africa were 53,339 and 15,995 respectively. These statistics have urged some governments and multinational organizations to give road safety some special attention.
The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2011–2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety with the goal of stabilizing and reducing global road traffic fatalities. In the past decade, Rwanda has made commendable strides to reduce injuries and deaths. These actions have included setting national speed limits to ≤50 km/hr, enforcing motorcycle helmet laws for all drivers and passengers, and mandating seatbelt laws for front seat passengers.
However, these personal accounts reflect the need for more preventative action. While not everyone drives a car or rides a motorcycle — every road user is a pedestrian. Around the world pedestrians account for nearly a quarter of all road traffic deaths. In Rwanda, education on road safety is widely neglected. Policemen don’t visit elementary schools for safety day. There are no field trips to the fire station. Children don’t know to look both ways before crossing the street. If needless deaths like this are to be reduced, there must be a commitment to raising awareness among parents, educators, traffic safety officials and children in addition to policy enforcement.
Megan Harrison is currently a GHC fellow at Partners In Health in Rwanda. We’re looking for the person that will continue Olivier’s work next year — you can check out the details and job description here.
To see the complete listing of fellowship roles that we’re currently recruiting, visitghcorps.org/placements and apply today. Applications close February 3, 2015.