At two o’clock Monday, a woman drove east down the Rue de la Croix Rouge and signaled to take a left turn at Rue Ganga. There’s a small boutique at the corner and Rue Ganga is a skinny road, so she headed into the turn slowly.
At the same moment, a young man also traveled east on Rue de la Croix Rouge on a small motorcycle. When he saw the woman’s car pause in the middle of the street, he proceeded to pass her on the left. As the car driver glided into her turn, the motorcycle passed, striking the front quarter-panel of the car and throwing the young driver headlong into the front metal wall of the small boutique. The motorcycle lay at the side of the road.
Crowds gather quickly in Burkina Faso. And even during the sleepy lunch hour a group of people quickly assembled. Accidents can be dangerous for foreigners, and the driver of the car happens to be French. Vigilante justice sometimes plays a role because a common-held belief that an untrustworthy judicial system often means the rich often can get out of crimes, so people sometimes take the law into their own hands. However, as the young man lay bloody and screaming in front of the small boutique, people quickly came to the conclusion that it was his fault, not the foreigner.
Someone dialed the ambulance. The proprietor of the neighboring café let the woman come in and sit out of the sun. She called her husband. Everyone stood in the blazing mid-day heat and listened to the young man wail under a sheet someone put over his head. As the sheet turned dark crimson, our large neighbor kept gawkers away. Not wanting to listen anymore, many of us just looked at the damage to the car: the crumpled metal, the plastic lying in the road. There was nothing anyone could do until the victim arrived at the hospital.
The ambulance finally arrived and the young man picked himself up and walked to the small van under his own power. He’d be ok.
Accidents are not accidental
Accidents are oftentimes not accidents. Burkina Faso is known for the proliferation of motorcycles and mopeds on its roads. It’s affordable, personal transportation; the best way to get around in a crowded city. These days, the moto of choice is small, light, fast motorcycle, equipped with big engines and poor breaks. Oftentimes they come without turn signals.
The young boy is a student, and like many of his friends, he often zips up and down Rue de la Croix Rouge at amazing speeds. When these youngsters come upon slower moving objects – and there are many: donkey carts, bicycles, pedestrians on the side of the road, even puttering cars – the kids usually pass by on the right hand side of the car. That the young boy passed on the left was not only uncommon, but an obvious error.
But it’s not only youngsters joyriding on motorcycles who create problems on this road: cars of all shapes and sizes use this street as a alternative for the busier, slower Boulevard de Charles de Gaulle, just a few blocks away. A few NGOs have moved into the neighborhood, which, along with the Red Cross, have increased vehicle traffic. These NGOs often employ chauffeurs, who are instructed to quickly get the boss to and from work.
A worldwide problem
In 2002, 1.2 million people died in road crashes and 50 million people were injured. Nearly half of the traffic fatalities consist of people under 25 years old, making our roads the world’s largest graveyard for young people.
Most of the road accidents occur in the developing world, in middle- and low-income countries where families often don’t have the financial means to cope with the death or disability of these young people. Raising the stakes even further, those most often hurt (or killed) in a road crash are family bread earners, according to the World Health Organization.
On the country level, the cost of road deaths is staggering. They are responsible for at least one percent of lost GDP in low-income countries; 1.5 percent for middle-income.
None of this acknowledges the emotional toll inflicted by all this carnage.
I know of a woman who searched for her missing husband for more nearly a week before they found his body in the city morgue. He had been out with friends at a bar and left to run a five-minute errand. Such a short trip, he said, so he left even his cell phone on the table. When he didn’t return, his friends thought he merely met other friends. They brought the phone to his wife, who didn’t think of looking until the next day. Four days after that he was found in the morgue. He was involved in an accident, and because he had no ID, no phone, nothing, the authorities didn’t know what to do with the body.
In Ouagadougou, the government has tried to institute wearing helmets for moto drivers. But when the police were issuing tickets for those without head protection, people threw rocks at the officers. The government relented.
The police also attempted to control people driving and speaking on cell phones. A friend of mine was pulled over while on his bicycle. That too has gone by the wayside.
The police do control speed and the obedience of stop signs through monitors standing on the side of the road. But these controls are infrequent. And most people think the police are only out to make money on the side.
Rumor has it that the city will soon prohibit those without driver’s license to drive motorcycles and cars.
My guess is the young man didn’t have a driver’s license. But would driving school have saved him from getting hurt? And what about the others – it’s estimated that at least one person dies on the streets of Ouagadougou every day.
The streets here will only become more crowded, the traffic more diverse. It’s a growing city and this affects drivers in different ways: A higher population will put more drivers on the roads; more people in Ouagadougou will also stretch out the boundaries of the city, forcing people to drive longer distances.
Malcolm Gladwell points out in his story on road safety in the U.S: “Every two miles, the average driver makes four hundred observations, forty decisions and one mistake. Once every five hundred miles, one of those mistakes leads to a near collision, and every sixty thousand miles one of those mistakes leads to a crash.”
That happened to my friend Allasane, who had to work on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. He was driving a large white truck, cruising down Boulevard de Charles de Gaulle. Next to him: a young man on a moto, but he was in the bike lane – a well regarded safety feature designed to separate different types of vehicles. The moto driver must not have noticed Allasane, for he made a left hand turn out of the bike lane directly into the traffic of Charles de Gaulle. What can you do? Allasane braked. The kid flipped over the grill of the large truck and onto the hood. The blood on the grill said it all.