Uganda

Deadly Crossings: Efforts Aim to Make Roads Safer for Pedestrians

Road safety experts say it’s far past time the country match international speed limit standards. But speed is just one factor.

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Deadly Crossings: Efforts Aim to Make Roads Safer for Pedestrians

PATRICIA LINDRIO, GPJ UGANDA

Birungi Margaret stands in her compound in Entebbe, Uganda. A traffic collision left her with an amputated knee and a dislocated shoulder.

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ENTEBBE, UGANDA — It’s not uncommon for pedestrians to get knocked down by cars or motorcycles in Uganda. It has happened to Cissy Ojara three times.

“Once by a car and twice by a motorcycle taxi,” says the mother of one from Namugongo, a few kilometers outside Kampala, the capital.

An allegedly unlicensed and intoxicated driver on Entebbe Road left Birungi Margaret without a knee and led to the total collapse of her businesses, which were once thriving. “I don’t remember how it happened, but I recall waking up in so much pain in the hospital, my legs were supported by metal and hanging above my bed,” she says.

They echo the stories of many Ugandan pedestrians, who are more vulnerable to traffic collisions than any other road users in the country. Road safety advocates say that speed, unsafe roads and a lack of government action fuel a devastating number of pedestrian deaths.

While some like Birungi and Ojara survive with injuries, pedestrians account for the highest number of roadway fatalities. The Kampala Capital City Authority reports that 38% of the total number of traffic-related fatalities the city recorded in 2019 involved pedestrians, followed closely by motorcyclists at about 27%. Nationwide, pedestrians also accounted for the most roadway deaths in 2020, compared to motorcyclists, passengers, drivers and bicyclists.

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

In a March 2022 press release, Road Safety Advocacy Coalition Uganda, a network of civil society organizations pushing for road safety in the country, faulted the transport ministry for failing to develop and enact new speed regulations, even though the framework already exists. Instead, the country relies on the outdated 2004 Traffic and Road Safety Act, which regulates speed based on the type of road or the status of development in the area, and not the number of pedestrians using the road.

The organizations call on Uganda’s transport ministry to replicate international standards by establishing a 30 kph (about 19 mph) speed limit in populated areas, such as around schools, churches and hospitals.

While most of the world has adopted the recommended speed limit, Uganda lags, says Godfrey Mwesigye, interim chairperson at the advocacy coalition. “There is still a huge gap we need to bridge.”

The move could reduce injuries and fatalities by about 75%, according to the coalition. The current speed limit in Uganda’s populated areas is 50 kph (about 30 mph).

It was in one of these 50 kph stretches where Robert Ariongo died in 2019. During the last hours of his life, the 32-year-old couldn’t stop talking about his upcoming wedding, recalls his friend and colleague, Eliakim Mationdo. It was after school, and the two teachers were helping students cross the busy Entebbe Road, along which the school is located. They managed to get the schoolchildren safely to one side of the road. Then they started back.

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PATRICIA LINDRIO, GPJ UGANDA

Traffic moves along Jinja Road in Kampala. The zebra crossings for this intersection have faded, further exacerbating the dangers pedestrians face when they try to cross the street.

“The crash happened so fast,” Mationdo says. The speeding truck didn’t even slow down, he recalls, despite the men walking in a visible zebra crossing and a nearby sign announcing the speed limit. “I got stuck under the truck and Robert got run over.”

Sam Bambanza, executive director of Hope for Victims of Traffic Accidents, a Uganda nonprofit that promotes road safety, hopes that lower speed limits in areas with many pedestrians will reduce the number of injuries and fatalities. “Lesser crashes will occur if motorists oblige,” he says, adding that an increase in registered motor vehicles makes the matter even more urgent.

But poor road infrastructure in the country, which doesn’t cater to the needs of pedestrians, also is a factor, says Bonny Enock Balugaba, project officer at the Road and Traffic Injury Research Network at Kampala’s Makerere University. “They have to compete for space with motorized traffic.”

New road construction guidelines are needed, he says, that include safe spaces for pedestrians.

The Ugandan government plans to improve road infrastructure for pedestrians and work toward reduced speed limits in high-risk areas, says Katunguka James, senior road safety officer at the Ministry of Works and Transport. “We are reviewing all the existing regulations to make them comprehensive and adhere to best practices,” he says.

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The government has made some strides. In 2020, with funding from the United Nations, it redesigned Namirembe Road and Luwum Street in downtown Kampala — a busy business area — to install the country’s first pedestrian-friendly route with protected sidewalks as well as bike lanes, according to a statement by the Kampala Capital City Authority. The new 2-kilometer (about 1.2-mile) corridor has eliminated traffic injuries and fatalities along the route, according to the statement, as well as boosted economic growth in the area and made it easier for people to get around.

In an October 2021 press release, the local Kampala government said it has plans to install a further 134 kilometers (about 83 miles) of similar non-motorized traffic routes, including sidewalks and bike lanes, as part of the $288 million Kampala City Roads Rehabilitation Project supported by the African Development Bank.

But government improvements can only do so much, Katunguka says, since some road users still disregard traffic laws while others vandalize signs.

Kawuma Regan, a truck driver, agrees that road users are partly to blame. He says pedestrians are often reckless and impatient. “They cross in the middle of the road and often come from nowhere, and once a driver realizes he is in the wrong, he assesses the risk,” he says, adding that drivers also lack proper training.

The government is aware many drivers lack training, Katunguka says, so the transport ministry plans to digitize the training and licensing process. He hopes this weeds out corruption and ensures incompetent drivers don’t pay off licensing officers. “We cannot say when it will take effect, but it’s already established,” he says.

But that does little for injured pedestrians or the families of those killed in roadway incidents. “I still have burial debts,” says Awino Eunice, wife of the late Ariongo, who has had to take on a job as a matron in an Entebbe school.

The accident along Entebbe Road has also upended Mationdo’s life. “I can’t stand or walk for over 10 minutes without feeling discomfort,” he says. “This is affecting my teaching job, but I cannot afford time off because of the debt I acquired in hospital bills.”

Birungi, who used to be very social, says she spends her days indoors because of pain from her injuries.

Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.