Weak Regulations, Corruption Increase Motorbike Taxi Death Toll in Uganda


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An increase in deaths from boda-boda accidents has drawn attention to the lack of training and sometimes corrupt permit process.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Margaret Muhakanizi, 54, a housewife and resident of Busabala, a Kampala suburb, lost her son, Job Mugenzi, 25, in a motorcycle accident earlier this year. 

She says Mugenzi worked as a boda-boda cyclist in the commercial motorcycle public transport business popular in Uganda. She says Mugenzi died after swerving to avoid an oncoming car and colliding with another boda-boda rider early one morning on his way to work.

“He had not seen that there was a boda-boda beside him,” Muhakanizi says. “This boda-boda hit his motorcycle, and he fell off the motorbike and fell on the hard surface. And it hit and split his head.”

Muhakanizi says her son would have survived had he been wearing a helmet.

“Job had left his helmet at his friend’s place the previous day,” she says with a distant look in her eyes. “He would not have died. The helmet would have protected his head.”

Muhakanizi says that the driver of the car also bears responsibility for her son’s death.

“It was a weekend,” she says. “The person who was driving the vehicle was drunk. The road was small. He also contributed to the accident.”

She says Mugenzi’s friend was at the scene of the accident and took him to Mulago Hospital, the national referral hospital in the capital, Kampala, where he died.

Muhakanizi says her son was friendly.

“He was a friend of everybody,” she says. “He used to befriend even little children. I used to confide in him.”

She adds that he showered her with gifts and was God-fearing.

“He used to bring me things: utensils, basins and many other things,” she says. “He never used to miss church, and he was very active in church.  I know we shall meet him in heaven.”

Mugenzi’s sister, Susan Atwongyeirwe, 23, says her older brother used to take good care of her.

“I had a share of Mugenzi’s monthly salary,” she says as tears fill her eyes. “He knew I didn’t have a job and he would give me money every end of month. He used to send me messages for Sabbath.”

She says he also used to send her messages for her birthday.

“He was buried on 1st April, which is my birthday,” she adds tearfully.

Families decry the rising number of deaths and injuries from accidents related to boda-bodas. Medical professionals confirm an increasing number of patients from these accidents who are overwhelming hospital staff. Doctors, boda-boda cyclists and police blame a lack of standardized driving training for the rise, with cyclists alleging that police accept bribes to enable them to obtain driving permits. Authorities say plans are underway to improve regulations of the industry after delays caused by inadequate funding.

Deaths related to boda-boda or motorcycle accidents have steadily increased annually since the Uganda Police Force began producing the Annual Crime and Traffic Road/Safety Report in 2007. Deaths rose from 129 in 2006 to 330 in 2010.

Betty Birabwa, 43, a market vendor in Entebbe, a town 30 kilometers from Kampala, says a boda-boda cyclist recently knocked down her 6-year-old son, Timothy, on his way home from school. She says that no one can believe that her son, a first-grader, survived.

“If you had seen where the boda-boda knocked him, you would be sure that he is dead,” she says. “The scene of the accident was full of blood. He was spitting blood. His head was swollen.”

Birabwa says she’s grateful that her son is alive, though in great pain. He is recovering at the state-run Entebbe Hospital.

Timothy also suffers from a heart condition, which doctors told his parents has complicated and has increased the cost of his recovery.

“He used to have a heart problem even before the accident,” she says. “They thought the accident could have aggravated his heart disease.”

The hospital bills from the accident are high, so the family can’t afford to take Timothy to the Uganda Heart Institute at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Birabwa says.

“My husband tries to get money to ensure that the boy survives,” she says.

High hospital bills have already made it impossible for the parents to afford university fees for their elder son.

“My other son was supposed to be going to university this year, but he has missed school,” she says. “We are spending most of the money in trying to look after Timothy.” 

Birabwa says they have requested financial compensation from the boda-boda cyclist who hit Timothy to offset their son’s medical bills.

“But he has refused to help,” she says.

Despite his refusal, she says she is not interested in taking legal action against him.

Dr. Beyaza Kityo, a medical officer at Mulago Hospital, confirms an increase in motorcycle-related accidents.

“We receive most of the boda-boda accident victims because this is a national referral hospital,” he says. “These accidents have been increasing over the last 15 years.”

Doctors treat more than 10 fracture-related injuries from motorcycle accidents daily at the hospital, Kityo says. The majority of motorcycles in Kampala are boda-bodas.

“These are head, leg-bone, thigh-bone and spine injuries,” he says. “We admit, on average, five patients per day.”

Because of the high number of motorcycle-related accidents, Mulago Hospital set up a unit specifically to treat victims of boda-boda accidents, Kityo says. But this requires more staff members and specialists. 

“We are overwhelmed by the numbers of boda-boda accidents' victims with major fractures, and we have no orthopedic surgeons,” he says. “We have only 30. The others are still training.”

Kityo adds that medical professionals are planning a multifaceted approach to better handle the rising number of accident victims.

“We are proposing to improve treatment for victims of boda-boda accidents so they can recover fast,” he says. “We are also planning to collect data, analyze it, write out good papers to inform policy and increase awareness about boda-boda.”

Medical professionals are confident they can do their part to decrease fatalities.

“We can bring down the number of accidents caused by boda-bodas as we did the HIV incidence,” he says.

But they say others must do their part as well. Kityo blames the lack of training of boda-boda cyclists for the increase in accidents and deaths.

“Boda-bodas don’t obey any law,” he says. “Unlike taxi drivers, they don’t go to school to attain a driving permit. They ride on walkways. They ride in between cars. They ride on the right side of cars. They ride on the left side of cars.”

He says industry standards must be higher.

“Boda-bodas should be trained for at least three days and given a certificate,” he says.

Joseph Kato, a boda-boda cyclist, acknowledges that cyclists need training.

“Some boda-bodas are not properly trained to be on the road,” he says. “They just rush very fast.”

Beyond a lack of driving instruction, most boda-boda cyclists in Uganda have not attained any form of education, says Niwabeine Lawrence, the traffic commander in charge of Kampala Metropolitan Police.

“These were formerly street or abandoned children,” he says. “They are now boda-boda riders. They did not get formal education. Illiteracy problems compound most of the problems of boda-boda cyclists.”

Kato says that new drivers of cars also contribute to accidents by knocking down boda-boda cyclists.

“Others driving cars are also learning,” he says. “And they cause boda-boda accidents.”

Raphael Mugyenyi, 33, a boda-boda cyclist working in Kampala, says there is no standard training for boda-boda cyclists. He also says that police ask for bribes from boda-boda cyclists to pass their driving tests.

To obtain his permit, Mugyenyi filled out forms at the Uganda Revenue Authority, the government body in charge of collecting taxes, and the Kyambogo Computerized Driving Permit Centre, the national center responsible for granting all driving permits in the country.

He paid two fees totaling 90,000 shillings ($35) at the bank. He also had to go to the doctor for an eyesight test.

He then went to take the driving test at the Nakawa Police Post, where he says that the police officer administering the exam told him he wouldn’t be able to pass the test on his own. The officer then asked him for a bribe of 30,000 shillings ($12) in order to pass, Mugyenyi alleges.

He says he accepted the bribe to pass the otherwise impossible test.

“You cannot pass that test, the way they arrange those posts,” he says.

The officer only tested him on his knowledge of road traffic signs then gave him a passing slip to take to the driving center to obtain his permit, he says.

Vincent Ssekate, deputy police spokesman of Kampala Metropolitan Police, says the police force demands discipline of its officers.

“One of our core values as the Uganda Police Force is discipline,” he says. “We are doing the best we can to ensure discipline among the police officers.”

But he says that there could be corrupt officials accepting bribes.

“Of course, as human beings, there might still be some elements getting bribes from people either to get driving or riding permits or other reasons,” he says.

He urges the public to report such cases.

“Ugandans should help us by reporting these people so that we can deal with them,” he says.

Lawrence says that there is a law that regulates the operations of boda-boda cyclists in Kampala. The Kampala Capital City Authority, a legal entity established by the Parliament of Uganda to govern the operation of Kampala, has the mandate to create stations for riders to pick up customers and to give them uniforms and identification labels so that they operate in an organized way.

“We need to enforce the law,” he says.

Jennifer Musisi, executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority, says the authority is working to balance planning and funding to fulfill this mandate.

“We are working on procuring a contractor to help us carry out a study and do a reorganization plan,” she says. “We had previously called for bids for contractors to do it. We received bids, but they asked for much more money than KCCA had planned for.”

Musisi adds that the authority is still looking.

“We are planning to readvertise so that we can streamline for the operations of the boda-bodas,” she says. “There are thousands of boda-boda cyclists.” 

Meanwhile, police encourage citizens to look out for their own safety.

Ssekate advises Ugandans to ensure that boda-boda cyclists meet regulations before accepting a ride.

“He should have a helmet, identification, etc.,” Ssekate says. “Make sure he does not ride on pavements and rides in a manner that is going to endanger your life.”

Lawrence even recommends that citizens bring their own equipment.

“A passenger on a motorcycle should wear a crash helmet,” he says. “In case of an accident, you don’t get head injuries. You can buy your own and keep it.”