Saturday, April 12, 2008

Carnage on the roads

When I returned to the US from Guinea, I was often asked in those early days if I felt in danger while I was over there. To most Americans, Africa is the nebulous land of war, famine, coups d'Etat and mysterious diseases. Many were somewhat taken aback when I said no.

But that's not entirely true. There were times when I did feel like I was risking life and limb: on the roads.

Guinean roads are filled with decrepit bush taxis, wobbly buses and most dangerous of all, the infamous gros camions (imagine something like this but bigger and more top heavy).

Worst of all is that these death traps were often driven at high speeds crappy, poorly maintained obstacle courses called Guinean roads.

Roads in Senegal were slightly better so vehicles there would treat it like the Indy 500.

On the first trip I ever took in Guinea outside my village, I was in an ex-pat SUV (I usually traveled in public transportation but got lucky this time) bouncing along, literally, on a pothole filled road to the northeastern city of Kankan.

Less than an hour into the trip, we passed a gros camion that had flipped on to its side and people were staggering out. We stopped to see if anyone was hurt. Thankfully not. But that was telling.

I swore then and there that I'd never set foot in the cab of a gros camion unless I was dying and need medical care. And I never did. Buses and bush taxis were bad enough, especially on the narrow, windy roads of central Guinea.

But many Guineans and other Africans, especially those who sell goods at the market, do not have that choice. So it's not surprising that a recent international conference highlighted the crisis of road deaths, which is now the number one killer of young people aged 10-24 worldwide.

[E]ach year more than1.2 million people are killed and 50 million injured on the world's roads.

Road accidents are already one of the leading causes of death in Africa, with Ethiopia and Uganda being the most dangerous. The two countries experience some 190 deaths per 100,000 cars. The rate in the United States is 2.

And it's not expected to improve any time soon. According to the World Bank and the World Health Organisation, the number of fatalities on Africa's roads is predicted to rise by over 80 per cent between 2000 and 2020, second only to South Asia at 144 per cent, reported the East African.

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