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.