By Vincent Kahiya
WHEN 33 people died in a road accident along the Harare-Chirundu road on Monday the story of the tragedy was relegated to number four on the main television news. Stories about money se
ized under Project Sunrise and Vice-President Joice Mujuru’s trip to South Africa received more prominence.
This is how our rulers value human life. Two people I knew well perished in the accident and another who lost his wife in that tragedy was critically injured.
One of the deceased persons used to drive to and from Harare every fortnight but he could not do so last week because of the sharp rise in the price of fuel. He was forced to travel by bus and he has become a statistic of the carnage on our roads.
The police have only given sketchy details about the cause of the accident. It could have been a burst tyre, the bus was overloaded and the driver could have been speeding, we were told. This is the same sort of drivel we got when dozens of people perished in three separate accidents three months ago.
But this, coming from a police force that not so long ago paraded officers and the latest gear to carry our forensic investigations at accident scenes, is hugely disappointing. We would be glad to know what happened to the forensic examiners, if ever there were any and what became of their equipment.
The forensic traffic investigators are crucial in assisting local authorities and civil planners in designing roads and roadside infrastructure such as lampposts, traffic signs and kerbs.
I am still amazed at the number of high mast lampposts that have been brought down by motorists along major Harare roads, especially Enterprise Road in the Glen Lorne and Umwinsdale areas, and the Chitungwiza road. The lampposts appear to be too close to the road hence motorists like to climb up them at every opportunity.
The forensic investigators should explain this phenomenon. That is their role. What is more surprising is that the Harare local authority does not appear to have learnt anything from the huge number of lampposts that they have to replace all the time after they are knocked down by motorists. They keep replacing them in exactly the same positions, inviting more accidents.
Imprecise details on the causes of accidents and the recurrence of carnage are evidence that there is something wrong with the regulation of the transport sector that is also saddled with crippling funding costs.
Accidents like the one this week are bound to happen again so long as the transport sector continues to face viability problems and as long as there are no proactive measures to enforce safety standards on buses.
Discussions with bus operators and officials in the Zimbabwe Traffic Safety Council this week revealed shocking details about the state of the transport industry in the country. Corrupt vehicle inspectors and unscrupulous operators trying to cope with the shortage of spare parts are compromising the safety of passengers.
Operators said whenever they send buses to the Vehicle Inspection Depot to get certificates of fitness, they either borrow or cannibalise tyres from grounded buses to fit on front axles. After inspection, they return the tyres to the owners and then fit worn-out tyres on the buses that are then dispatched on rural routes.
Youthful drivers entrusted to move some of the contraptions we see on our roads believe it is an act of valour to drive at over 120 km/h. Whatever happened to the police highway patrols? Eaten up by Zimbabwe’s all-devouring monster — corruption?
Zimbabwean traffic laws make it an offence to fit retreads on the front axles of buses but I have seen quite a number of such offenders going unpunished. The same goes for buses and rickety lorries moving on urban roads without lights at night while police officers manning roadblocks chat by the roadside waiting for kombis that can yield a bribe.
Bus operators said the same tricks affected other crucial components like steering wheel systems, brakes and mandatory gear to protect heavy vehicles in the event of tyre blowouts. Operators using unroadworthy vehicles can always bribe the police to secure passage.
There is also concern over the strength and suitability of certain substandard tyre brands being imported from China that have flooded the market. Good brands of tyres cost anything between $200 million and $300 million and the cheap ones sell for $120 million.
Faced with huge cash outlays, operators are opting for the cheap Chinese tyres that are deemed to provide excellent value for money. But the shortcuts have come at a huge price that includes the loss of human lives.
When human lives are at stake, it is incumbent on government to maintain safety standards. At the moment, it is all rhetoric and very little action on the ground.
I challenge VID bosses to go to Mbare Musika bus terminus and see the poor tyres fitted on front wheels of buses and to check how many of the vehicles have blowout protection gear. That’s being proactive.