The primary aim of our development policies… is to stop people messing with my car.

On Friday, a driver turned into the road in front of my car (a petite Suzuki Escudo, car fans) with a long thick plank of wood hanging off the back of his pick-up. The plank swung into the side of my car and left a dent big enough to prevent the passenger door from opening fully.

It’s just a car. No big deal (I’m not crying. It’s raining on my face). But what got me thinking is that the standard response to road accidents here is some variation of the DiCaprio justification. Is this just patronising? Why should there be any poverty or under-development related reason why people should drive like maniacs and road accidents should be so frequent? Poverty doesn’t mean that people can’t learn about road safety, particularly those who can afford cars!

My guess is that there are probably a few reasons why road safety in Africa is so poor:

  • Poor roads. These can cause accidents because the money to maintain them simply isn’t allocated; however, this should not impact on the frequency of people-denting-my-car-with-wooden-planks incidents. It should induce more careful driving.
  • Poor institutions. Weak road traffic institutions allow maniacs who drive with planks in their car to have licenses, often for the cost of ‘chai’.
  • Poor pay / Corruption. Those police officers hired to prevent people from driving around with planks hanging off the back of their pick-ups are often underpaid and can be induced into allowing such unacceptable behaviour … for the price of ‘chai’.

Are there other reasons I’m missing? The reason this bothers me is if these are genuinely the only reasons why road safety is so bad here, and the standard of driving so low, then we’re admitting that people are basically lazy and dangerous, not taking sufficient care about the property and lives of others, unless someone with a big stick threatens to beat us with it if we do wrong, and can make that a credible threat. Is there no evolution of social norms to reduce the cost of bad driving?

Of course, this is not an Africa-specific problem. I learnt more swear words in twenty minutes driving with my uncle in Sri Lanka than I did in years of mis-spent youth; again, maniacal drivers and crap roads = high incidence of road accidents.

As a totally unbiased and not-at-all-angry-at-pick-up-drivers-with-planks-hanging-off-the-back-of-their-cars observer, I suggest this is an area where much greater analysis and policy work is needed. We need to follow this politician’s lead.

Update: In light of the comment on the post, I just wanted to make it absolutely clear that the comments on driving in Africa (and indeed other places with bad institutions for maintaining driving standards like Sri Lanka) relates to all drivers in the place, not just Africans! As Joe points out many expats who go to live in Africa accept and participate in bad driving practices that most wouldn’t do at home – hence my speculation that a big element of road safety is institutions and enforcements because most people who move to or live in countries where these are poor seem to drive recklessly.

7 thoughts on “The primary aim of our development policies… is to stop people messing with my car.

  1. Joe

    July 13, 2009 at 8:35pm

    While the level of road deaths (and notably pedestrian deaths) is indeed quite shocking and worthy of thought, you’re obviously discounting your own habit of driving home from Chameleon’s in Lilongwe after a few beers from this review of Africans being basically lazy and dangerous, not taking sufficient care about the property and lives of others, unless someone with a big stick threatens to beat us with it if we do wrong. I doubt you would have drive in London after one beer so I think your piece is a little unfair as it removes your own behaviour in African countries from the analysis.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    July 14, 2009 at 6:42am

    well, if you read the piece, you’ll notice I say in Africa, and never Africans. My point is that in my experience in Africa *everyone* drives badly. Or almost everyone. The safe, careful drivers are not easily identifiable by colour. That’s why I was saying that in the absence of the big stick, we’re *all* tempted to drive without sufficient regard for others.

    I also didn’t say that the car that dinged my one was driven by a chinese expat… because I didn’t think his race was worthy of comment.

  3. Itay

    July 14, 2009 at 8:54am

    I would like to draw your attention to a certain ‘incident’ that happened in Malawi not too far from Lake Malawi back in September 2007….

  4. Matt

    July 14, 2009 at 9:02am

    This is a good time to bring up the work of Edward Miguel, who tried to determine if countries developed cultural norms for “corruption,” but it works just as well for bad driving:

    Diplomats in the US have immunity from prosecution – this includes parking tickets, so Miguel gathered information on the number of parking fines each foreign diplomat had incurred in the past 5 years or so. He then looked at the relationship between the number of tickets and a number of factor.

    The one that mattered the most? The corruption indicators for the diplomat’s country. Norwegian diplomats almost never had any parking fines – the Nigerians had the most.

    Of course when they managed to adapt the law so that diplomats would have to start paying for fines, the parking fine rates all converged.

    Moral of the story? If you can subject people credibly to the big stick they’ll fall in line, no matter their cultural norm.

  5. Ranil Dissanayake

    July 14, 2009 at 9:37am

    Itay – You’ll see that that is covered under the first bullet, bad roads…. but seriously, I’m happy to admit I’ve been guilty of lazy driving in the past. And that’s the point – I’ve never driven anywhere but in Africa, so I don’t know if its because I’m a lazy driver or because I know that I’m not going to get called up for it. In other cases, I have friends who have driven in the UK regularly but after 6 months – 1 year in Africa start breaking road laws routinely. And their response is always some form of TIA – ‘I wouldn’t do this at home, but here it’s kind of acceptable’. What I’m saying is it’s never acceptable, and it’s just patronising to say ‘well, in Africa they don’t care, so lets just drive how we want’. I’m guilty of that too, and it’s something I took the opportunity of the bastard-with-a-plank to comment on.

    Matt – that is interesting; what it might indicate is that because institutions for managing road traffic violations in Nigeria are weak, until a driver who is used to such driving conditions is subject to harsher institutions they will retain their ‘normality’ in driving habits. but if they’ve never been exposed to such lax institutions and rule enforcement, their ‘default’ position might be observing the rules they’d expect to be punished for at home.

    just a thought.

  6. electromozzo

    July 28, 2009 at 12:26pm

    Good to see you’re doing some research to fill in the ???

  7. Sdanektir

    August 6, 2009 at 5:54pm

    I don’t get it, what do you mean by the 3rd paragraph?

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