Safeguarding Lives: Making a Case for an 80kph Speed Limit in Botswana 

The time to act is now because every life saved is invaluable and every preventable tragedy avoided is a triumph for humanity 


Special Correspondent

In Botswana, where the annual toll of road fatalities reaches a staggering 600 lives, the urgency to revise national speed limits has never been clearer. With current limits set at 120kph on many roads amidst mixed-use terrain that includes roaming domestic animals, the case for reducing the speed limit to 80 kph is not just compelling – it is imperative. Or is it?

Hah! The sounds of readers’ intake of breath upon reading this is almost audible. In this feature The Botswana Gazette, never averse to controversy, takes the bull by the horns and proposes the unthinkable. The arguments made are economic, social and technical.

Firstly, the stark statistics speak volumes. Every year, 600 individuals lose their lives on Botswana’s roads due to accidents. This is a WHO figure because the police tell us it is around 400 but they do not count deaths occurring in hospitals after the accident and confine themselves to deaths reported at the scene of the incident.

Be that as it may, research has shown that the difference can be at least 50%. Undoubtedly, road-deaths are exacerbated by high-speed conditions. The death rate of 24/100000 is very high. UK road deaths are 2.5/100000. No excuses please: Botswana is a low population country with low traffic density; the UK is highly populated with proportionately three times more vehicles and traffic flows of 200,000 per day on the busiest roads.

Shattered families, devastated communities 

The issue is only one of driver behaviour. This devastating toll is not just a number but represents families shattered, communities devastated, and potential unrealised. Reducing the speed limit to 80kph presents a tangible opportunity to drastically reduce these fatalities, potentially saving hundreds of lives annually. The current speed limit of 120kph, while seemingly accommodating for swift travel, poses significant risks in Botswana’s diverse road conditions.

Many roads are shared by pedestrians, cyclists and domestic animals, presenting unpredictable obstacles. At high speeds, drivers have limited reaction time to avoid collisions with the animals or vulnerable road users, leading to tragic outcomes that are entirely preventable.

Furthermore, the implementation of an 80kph speed limit aligns with international best practices and safety standards. Countries with similar road conditions and mixed-use environments have successfully reduced road fatalities by adopting lower speed limits.

This approach not only prioritises safety but also acknowledges the unique challenges posed by Botswana’s road network, promoting responsible driving behaviour and enhancing overall road safety culture.

Economic considerations also underscore the case for reducing the speed limit. The toll of road accidents extends beyond human tragedy, impacting national economies through medical costs, loss of productivity and vehicle damage. According to the World Health Organisation, added to 600 fatalities are about 3,000 serious injuries and 9000 slight injuries.

In October 2023, the WHO estimated that the total cost of road accidents amounted to about P15 billion or 6.5% of GDP. This is of massive significance yet is little appreciated by decisionmakers. There are indirect costs as well, like someone in need not finding a hospital bed or doctor because they are dedicated post-road accident traumas.

By mitigating the frequency and severity of accidents through a lower speed limit, Botswana can potentially save millions in healthcare expenditure and economic losses, redirecting resources towards sustainable development and infrastructure improvement.

Prioritisation of human life 

Critics may argue that reducing the speed limit could inconvenience travellers or hinder economic activity. However, empirical evidence from jurisdictions that have implemented similar measures demonstrates that any slight inconvenience is outweighed by the substantial gains in safety and overall societal benefit. The prioritisation of human life and well-being must always supersede perceived convenience or expediency.

Moreover, the reduction to 80kph reflects a proactive approach to road safety management. It integrates seamlessly with comprehensive road safety strategies that encompass enforcement, education and infrastructure improvements. By setting a lower speed limit, authorities can more effectively enforce regulations, educate drivers on safe practices, and invest in road infrastructure upgrades that enhance visibility, signage and animal-crossing precautions.

Benchmarking: The UK national speed limit is 70mph (112km/h) on motorways and dual carriageways, 60mph (96km/h) on single carriageways and generally 30mph (48km/h) in areas with street lighting (built-up areas). Note the 96kph applies to all single lane roads. Bearing in mind all of the typical ‘African’ hazards, 80kph is entirely justifiable at least on single lane roads.

Moving on to Japan: The legal speed limits are 60km/h on “normal roads” and 100km/h on expressways. It is prohibited to drive a car at the speed exceeding the legal limit even if there is no traffic sign for speed regulation. No need to say that unlike here at home, the quality of roads and vehicles in Japan is very high.

And next to China, which has a 100km/h on city express roads, 120 km/h on expressways or national highways built to expressway standards. Rural two-lane roads are restricted to 80km/h. Needless to say that traffic laws are heavily enforced.  A speed limit of 120kph on well-designed, effectively fenced expressways is acceptable but we do not have any.

Our four-lane roads operate the same as all roads. Given the mixed use and prevailing hazards, no half-decent road safety engineer would ever mark up such roadways at 120kph.

A moral and economic imperative  

Public support for the proposed reduction is likely to be mixed. Community engagement and awareness campaigns can further amplify understanding and acceptance of the measures, fostering a collective commitment to safer roads for all.

The introduction of an 80kph speed limit in Botswana is not merely a recommendation but a moral and economic imperative and practical necessity. It represents a proactive step towards safeguarding lives, reducing road fatalities, and promoting a culture of responsible driving.

By aligning national policies with international safety standards and addressing the unique challenges posed by mixed-use roads, will any political party even care about road accidents in these elections? Probably not, plot allocation seemingly being far more important than saving lives. Do politicians even appreciate that 6.5% of GDP is thrown on the economic waste tip due to road accidents?

In his SONA 24, the President led Parliament in a moment of silence to remember those lost on our roads. But other than such platitudes, little has been done.  Botswana can lead by example in prioritising road safety and ensuring a brighter, safer future for all its citizens and make 80kph standard on all roads.

The time to act is now because every life saved is invaluable and every preventable tragedy avoided is a triumph for humanity.