Prompted by the road accident deaths of a young woman and her sister en route to an Occupational Health and Safety dinner recently, DOUGLAS RASBASH and KAONNEH PHETOGO explore the indifference of authorities who routinely turn a blind eye on road safety and consider to what extent cultural norms may be to blame for the extremely costly laxity that calls for OHS interventions without delay if the toll on lives and the economy should be checked
At approximately 5 pm on Saturday 21st October, a young woman was travelling to a special dinner organised by schools of OHS – Occupational Health and Safety. Her sister was the driver of the smart VW Golf in which they were travelling.
She never made it to the OHS dinner where her chair at the table stood ominously empty. Both died in a horrendous road crash – a family lost two daughters.
The diners lamented that if industry-wide occupational health safety standards applied to road operations, those fine young women would still be with us today.
Road accidents are the number one killer of young people and account for over 3 percent of premature deaths. The cost of road accidents is about 7 percent of GDP, yet the government seems not to care. The police focus more on licensing, taxation and revenue generation from speed fines than safety. The traffic regulation enforcement agencies turn a blind eye on vehicle condition checks such brakes, lights and tyres. Around night clubs and bars, traffic regulation enforcement agencies seem to turn their collective blind eye on thousands of drunk drivers every Friday and Saturday nights who then kill and maim hundreds every year and destroy millions in road infrastructure due to the collective ‘oversight’ of the traffic police. If mining companies and offices turned a blind eye on health and safety, they would be prosecuted. Surely those responsible for our road transport systems should be equally culpable?
The blind eye comes from the top that allows for no vehicle condition checking except when newly imported, and no vehicle risk insurance where the insuring companies normally demand that insured vehicles are well maintained.
Common to many countries is the demerit system that inexplicably is not applied in Botswana. This is a system that incrementally penalises recalcitrant drivers. The demerit system has proved to make a profound difference to road safety throughout the world, but our politicians are blind to it. Old unsafe cars recklessly driven by young drunken drivers are the norm.
Veritable war zone
Witness the disgraceful extent of spoilt street furniture, lighting and traffic control systems, the repair costs of which should be recovered from the traffic offender, but another blind eye is turned on that too. What must foreigners think as they see the veritable war zone that has become the norm in our urban driving environment?
And the economic cost. The government turns a totally blind eye on this because nobody even knows or cares about the economic cost of road accidents. So let it be explained here that the estimation of economic costs of roads crashes covers a long list of things that includes medical costs, emergency transport, hospitals, rehabilitation, funeral expenses, policing costs, fire, legal and victim services costs, costs of damage to property, costs of work loss or productivity losses and the cost of loss of quality of life for victims and their families.
Economic costs hinge on the concept of the value of life. The recommended value of a life is set out by the International Road Assessment Programme, IRAP, to be calculated as 100*GDP/capita for countries like Botswana while the value of serious injury is conventionally taken as 25% of the value of life and minor injuries 1% of the value of life. Accordingly, the cost of a fatality would be calculated as 100 x $7,000 = $700,000 or in round figures Pula 10 millon, Pula 2,5 million for a serious injury and P100,000 for a slight injury.
According to the World Health Organisation, road deaths in Botswana have increased to about 600 per year, serious injuries about 3000 and 9000 for slight injuries. So the total cost of road accidents runs to about Pula 15 billion or 6.5% of GDP. If damage to vehicles and infrastructure is included, the economic cost of road accidents rises to over 7% of GDP.
A pertinent aside for partially-blinded decision-makers is that agriculture, which was 1.76% of GDP in 2022, would vastly benefit from switching resources consumed by road accidents – as would other productive sectors.
The government’s blind eye is even turned on the evidence itself, which suggests that far more die in and from road accidents than is recorded by the police. The reason for this is that police data is based on what is revealed to them at the scene of the accident and not what happens in hospitals afterwards.
In one study in Uganda, public health research from the famous Makerere University found that the police underreported road deaths by a whopping 280%. While the police reported 3200 deaths, the true figure was around 9000. Crash victims can take many days or weeks before they pass away while the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists may not even be comprehensively recorded.
In the absence of similar research, it is not possible to say for certain that the same applies in Botswana but it very likely does. This would mean over 1000 die each year from road accidents and not the 400 that the police statistics state. If proven to be true, this would be politically unacceptable.
So it begs the question, why the blindness? A clue is given by the concept of “freakonomics,” based on the best-selling book, “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.
The book explores unconventional – and sometimes counterintuitive – economic and social phenomena, often revealing unexpected insights into human behaviour. It is a fascinating blend of economics and social science that seeks to uncover hidden patterns and motivations behind various aspects of life. While “freakonomics” as a field of study or concept doesn’t directly relate to cultural norms and road safety, its approach can be applied to understand the incentives that underlie the tolerance of risky road behaviour in some cultures.
By using the principles of economic analysis and incentives, one can delve into the economic rationale behind certain cultural norms and their impact on road safety. For example, one could apply a “freakonomics” perspective to explore: 1) How cultural norms and peer pressure influence individuals to engage in risky road behaviour; 2) the economic benefits of adhering to road safety rules versus the perceived benefits of flouting them; and 3) the potential economic consequences of changing cultural norms and improving road safety practices, including the direct and indirect financial impacts on individuals, communities, and governments.
In this context, “freakonomics” serves as a valuable lens for examining the economic and behavioural factors that contribute to the blind eye turned on road accidents in certain cultures. It is a way of thinking that encourages unconventional analysis and innovative solutions to complex social and economic challenges.
More specifically, cultural norms play a significant role in influencing how public health and safety are perceived and prioritised, especially in many developing countries. OHS dictates stringent safety standards for mining and industry but not for road transport operations. These norms can impact behaviour, policies, and government responses to public health issues, including road safety.
In some cultures, there may be a greater acceptance of risky behaviour, such as speeding or not wearing seatbelts. These cultural norms can contribute to a higher incidence of accidents. In regions where alcohol consumption is culturally significant, drunk driving may be normalised. Cultural celebrations and social gatherings often involve alcohol, leading to an increased risk of alcohol-related accidents. Legislators may be as guilty of this as their electorate, which is why blind eyes abound.
In countries with more immediate concerns related to basic needs like food, shelter and employment, road safety may not be a top priority. People may be focused on meeting these fundamental needs rather than considering long-term safety. Some cultures have well-established but informal transportation practices, such as overcrowded buses or shared taxis.
These practices may not conform to safety regulations, yet they are deeply ingrained in daily life. Cultural norms can lead to resistance to change. When efforts are made to implement safety measures like seatbelt usage or speed limits, people may view these changes as a disruption of their cultural practices. Cultural norms often have a strong sense of community and collective decision-making. Decisions regarding road safety may be influenced by what is deemed acceptable within the community.
In regions where educational resources are limited, there may be a lack of awareness about the importance of safety measures, leading to cultural norms that do not prioritise safety. In some cultures, traditional healing practices are preferred over formal healthcare, which can result in delayed or incomplete medical attention for accident victims. Reporting accidents or seeking medical help after an accident may carry social stigma in certain cultures, leading to underreporting and a lack of support for victims.
Cultural traditions can also affect road safety. For example, certain festivals or events may involve processions on busy roads with limited safety precautions. Addressing cultural norms that downplay public health and safety is a complex and sensitive task. It involves raising awareness, respecting local customs, and engaging with communities to promote safer practices, yet OHS is fully accepted in some sectors.
Therein lies the solution to road deaths – apply OHS principles to road transportation. Let this be the epitaph to the highly promising OHS student who will sadly never put her training into practice.