By Temlandvo Maziya

In Eswatini, road infrastructure is a major facilitator of social and economic development. The road infrastructure that government continues to develop is meant to improve mobility and connect people in different localities, facilitate trade, and induce productive economic activities.

Proper road infrastructure stands to benefit the economy through shorter and safer routes to workplaces, as well as make it easy to export products made in Eswatini to neighbouring countries and the rest of the world.

However, Eswatini’s road infrastructure has not improved to a level that is proportionate to the current traffic size/commuters using the roads on a daily basis. As a result, many people are exposed to unsafe roads, not only because of poor road infrastructure but also due to inexperienced drivers and a poor culture of road safety.

According to the World Health Organisation (2017), road fatalities accounted for 2.86% of total deaths in Eswatini. This means that for every 100 000 people, about 27 die due to road traffic accidents, which ranks Eswatini amongst the top 50 countries with the highest number of fatal road accidents in the world.

The number of people involved in road accidents annually has increased over the years from 5 547 in 2001 to 7 608 in 2016. If road accidents continue increasing by more than 10% every year, the country can expect to lose a significant portion of its population to its road infrastructure.

Ideally, road infrastructure is expected to connect people, increase productive economic activities, and facilitate trade instead of becoming a lethal weapon that is slowly decapitating the stock of human capital in Eswatini.

The Road Transport Department reports that vehicle ownership in the country has been increasing by an average of 7% each year since 2001. It is clear that more and more people are getting behind the wheel, thus increasing the exposure of a substantial portion of the population to traffic accidents. Without significant improvements on the entire road network and motorists’ driving skills, the vehicles on the country’s roads are well poised to take more lives.

Take for instance in 2016, financial losses due to road traffic accidents amounted to E547.3 million, which is equivalent to 1% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in that year. Making sense of the problem begins with recognising the fact that the country’s paved road network has not been increasing in proportion to the additional number of vehicles now using the road infrastructure.

To be specific, total paved roads have increased marginally to cover 26.5% of the total road network from 3 846 kilometres in 2000 to 5 290 kilometres in 2016. Note that the National Development Strategy (NDS) has a clear target that by 2018 the country should have paved at least 45% of its total road network.

Though the country is 18.5% short of meeting the set target, concerns arise on whether 45% is still relevant to the total traffic Eswatini has grown to experience in 2019. Could it be that the huge influx of vehicles using the country’s limited road infrastructure is contributing to the increase in traffic accidents?

The statistics suggest that Eswatini has more motor vehicles than the road infrastructure can accommodate. Moreover, while government continues to improve road infrastructure beyond 2019, questions remain unanswered on the typical driving skills and road safety etiquette possessed by the average liSwati driver.

Thanks to import vehicles from Japan and Singapore, anyone with access to E35 000 can now get behind a steering wheel. Whereas the mobility of people in most socioeconomic classes has improved – which has led to an increase in the hustle and bustle of the economy – the country should be concerned that road accidents are on an upward trend. As more people own vehicles, it seems that the quality of driving skills and general road safety standards are taking the backbench.

Why should we care about road accidents anyway?

Road traffic accidents contribute to social and financial strife. They have an impact that reverberates through every sector in the economy. Victims may lose their future earnings due to disability and/or incur exorbitant medical costs, if they do not lose their lives. Without insurance cover or compensation, road traffic accidents can lead to the financial ruin of both the victims and their families, as well as increase household vulnerability if the victim of a road accident is the breadwinner.

The private sector is also affected by road traffic accidents as these impede the transportation of goods around the country and thus, slows down trade. In short, the nation should care about road accidents because they are a major setback to the country’s quest to grow the economy and improve the standard of living for all Emaswati.

With Eswatini in the top 50 countries with the highest number of road fatalities, government needs to make it a priority to reduce the number of people dying on the country’s roads. More funds must be invested in new generation driving schools that are relevant to the current traffic scenarios and the needs of the 21st century driver.

Yes, automation and the introduction of self-driving vehicles will definitely make driving a lot easier and accessible to a lot more people; however, road safety principles still need to be maintained by both motorists and pedestrians.

Government should consider integrating road safety as part of the planning and design of road infrastructure. Over and above the investments being made to extend the country’s road infrastructure, Eswatini needs to be investing in quality drivers and a public that appreciates road safety.

In addition, there is a need to roll out road safety management services for a lasting solution to the road hazards that have claimed precious lives in the country. Measures to improve road safety encompass (and exceed) the “four Es” framework frequently applied in accident prevention work:

  • Enforcement – which relates to the contents of the traffic law and how instances of its violation as well as of road crashes can be recorded, prosecuted, and eventually reduced.
  • Education – which can focus on equipping all road users with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to facilitate their safe participation in traffic.
  • Engineering – which relates to measures focusing either on vehicles used on public roads or on the road infrastructure and layout itself.
  • Emergency services – which deal with the consequences of traffic crashes and aim to supply victims with quick and effective assistance after the occurrence of an accident.

It is time the country turns its road infrastructure into an enabler of productive economic activities in all the regions of Eswatini. One life lost on our roads is one too many.