KAMPALA, UGANDA — “You just have to be cool and pray silently that you reach your destination safely, even when your heart is almost jumping through your mouth,” says Ingrid Aguti of the 400-mile bus ride she takes from Kampala to her home village in the Pakwach district.
In recent years, Uganda has become known for its high rate of road accidents and related fatalities. (See our coverage here.) A February 2018 report from the United Nations revealed that as many as 10 people die every day on Uganda’s roads.
Speeding is among the leading causes of accidents, yet many bus and taxi drivers speed with impunity, because traffic enforcement is rare and because passengers don’t speak up often. In July, the government suspended the license of Gaagaa Bus Service, after two of its buses were involved in two accidents in a period of three months, killing 28 people and leaving several injured, says Patrick Mugisha, an investigations officer with the traffic police in Kampala. The license was later reinstated.
“It’s hard to speak your mind and tell the bus driver to reduce the speed, when everyone else seems to be OK with it,” Aguti says.
Since 2016, a project called SPEAKUP, a partnership between the government and Georgetown University in the United States, put stickers on buses and taxis in hopes of getting passengers to speak up to stop reckless driving. The project, which utilized American interns to design surveys and analyze accident data in the country, has had some benefits, says Ronald Amanyire, secretary of the National Road Safety Council, the government agency responsible for road safety.
The agency is analyzing data to see whether people were more likely to address reckless driving in buses and taxis with the stickers, he says.
But as accidents continue, the SPEAKUP stickers are not enough, passengers say.
Jackson Wacibra, manager at the recently suspended Gaagaa Bus Service, says that their buses had the SPEAKUP stickers and that the company did encourage passengers to report bad driving by providing numbers to call, but few responded.
“We have had these stickers in buses for two years, but people just ignore them,” he says.
Passengers may ignore the stickers because they don’t know their rights, says Joseph Ssewanyana, a lecturer at Makerere University.
“Most passengers don’t know their rights, so they tend to keep quiet, even when the driver is being reckless, but if they learn to speak up and condemn bad driving, chances are that the drivers will reduce speed,” he says.
Shira Nampewo, a frequent bus and taxi passenger, says that drivers don’t listen to feedback, so it’s pointless to say anything.
“They will tell you that there can’t be two drivers or to go buy your own car, so you can give orders,” she says.
Traffic investigations reveal that speeding is a leading cause of accidents, injuries and fatalities, says Mugisha of the traffic-police investigations unit in Kampala.
The Uganda Police Force registered 1,153 accidents for the months of May and June 2017, according to a police report. Most accidents are caused by speeding and by cars driving in the middle of the road, Mugisha says.
But bus and taxi drivers say they aren’t always to blame.
Ambrose Musisi, a taxi driver, says that every time a passenger critiques his driving, the passenger is asking him to speed up, not to slow down.
“The only time I have had passengers speak to me is when they are telling me to speed up, because they want to reach their destination on time,” he says. “And if I don’t, they abuse me, calling me slow and stupid, asking where I learned to drive.”
Musisi has a SPEAKUP sticker in his taxi.
While the National Road Safety Council is analyzing new data about the efficacy of the SPEAKUP project, some drivers do say the stickers make a difference.
Patrick Guwaludde has been a taxi driver for 30 years. He put a SPEAKUP sticker in his cab, and people do offer feedback, he says.
“I think the messages on the stickers do empower some people to speak up,” he says. “When passengers do speak to me for speeding, I listen and slow down.”