One for the road: Africa edition

On June 19, 2009, in Africa, road traffic injuries, by Karen Grepin

Whenever I am in Africa, I give a lot of through to the topic of road traffic injuries. I have now been in Ethiopia for just over a week and half and have personally seen evidence of 3 different road traffic accidents: a likely fatal flip of an overloaded van full of passengers and materials on the road between Bahar Dar and Gondar, a relatively minor accident between a Bajaj (Indian made 3-wheel rickshaw taxis) with a 4-by-4 in Bahar Dar, and a pile up of cars on a busy street in Addis. It is no wonder that many of the inpatient patients I visited with last week at a local referral hospital were there to recover from road traffic injuries.

Last evening I took the free airport shuttle from my hotel in Bahar Dar to catch my flight back to Addis. Our driver, a elderly old man, drove most of the trip at relatively high speed down the dark highway right down the middle of the road. Normally this is a pretty good strategy as there are frequently goats or cattle along one side of the road. However, whenever we approached a car coming in the other direction, for whatever reason, he actually swerved more onto the wrong side of the road, forcing the other car to slow down dramatically to ensure safe passage to our left. I could see us all going through the mental calculation that James Habyarimana and Billy Jack model in their paper Heckle and Chide – who of us was going to speak up first and ask the driver to improve his behavior? Luckily a guy in the front seat’s benefits outweighed his costs and he spent the rest of the drive heckling our driver to stay on the right.

I therefore thought this chart from the Economist on legal blood alcohol limits was interesting. Over 170 countries in the world have imposed legal alcohol limits. The WHO recommends a level of no more than 0.05 g/dl, meaning that the US and Canada, and countries in the UK actually have more lenient laws than recommended by the WHO. Africa, however, is scattered with some countries with strict WHO standards, others with standards equivalent to those in the US or the UK, and some with no limits at all. Ethiopia, sadly, is one of those with no legal limit. Of course having a law, and enforcing a law is a different matter, but at least it is a start. I wonder to what extent these rules have any impact at reducing accidents in developing countries?

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