Candid Comment

Drivers only respond to fear


Joram Nyathi


THERE are times when one is tempted to believe perhaps violence and force is the only language that Zimbabweans understand. I am talking about Zimbabwean drivers. I hate violence and there is no contradict

ion in what I have just said. Just wait.

In the past we used to worry about kombi drivers. They were virtually a law unto themselves on the country’s roads. People complained about how they all seemed to behave the same. The kombis posed the most serious threat to other drivers.

You had to be very vigilant if you were driving close to one. All the kombi driver needed to cut into your lane was an indication using an extended arm or by simply poking his head out of the window.

Your response was not important to him. His wish was your command if you wanted to avoid an incident and did not want to spend hours in an altercation as you waited for a police officer to come and record a statement.

The mottos on the backs of most kombis said it all: “No Fear”, “Not Guilty”, “It’s My Life” or “Keep Clear, I Can Stop Anytime”. Often they did, with nasty consequences.

However, the Zanu PF government’s staggering ineptitude has taken care of that unruly breed. Few of those kombis remain on the roads to cause a menace. There is either no fuel or no spare parts. The majority  of them can be seen parked at empty service stations at High Glen, Houghton Park and other designated places where they get subsidised fuel.

While this is a relief to road users, I sometimes wonder how we hope to achieve an economic turnaround when so many people spend so many man-hours sitting idle in empty kombis while workers are stranded by the roadside because there is no transport.

But the kombi drivers have been replaced by another breed consisting of ordinary drivers.

I have not read the Highway Code, Zimbabwe’s premier manual on road driving, in a long time, but I doubt that it could have been affected by our agrarian revolution. Back then, the Code was explicit on a number of road rules.

You had to be cautious when passing near a school because of children. On the road a vehicle was supposed to be parked 7,5m from a corner and you had to maintain a distance of at least five cars between yourself and the vehicle in front of you if you were travelling at 75km/h, etc.

Most of these rules don’t seem to apply anymore. It is not uncommon to see a driver breathing down your boot at 80 km/h at night while his lights are on full beam. It is a very serious risk to try and warn him about this dangerous behaviour.

But back to the Highway Code and the drivers who drive me mad. It was mandatory back then that you give way to a fire tender or an ambulance sounding its siren. It was equally mandatory to give way when the presidential motorcade was coming.

In Zimbabwe drivers now respond only to the presidential motorcade.

An ambulance and a fire tender are emergency vehicles whether they are sounding their sirens or merely flashing their revolving lights. Property might be on fire and human life in danger. There might be a road accident with people trapped in a burning vehicle or a house on fire.

From our offices in town I have the privilege of watching fire tenders and Mars ambulances blaring their sirens up and down Rotten Row on a daily basis. I have watched in horror as drivers race these essential service vehicles to the traffic lights on Samora Machel and make every effort to block their path.

Others are not so callous, but their behaviour is no better. They will simply stop in the path of the ambulance or the fire tender and hope that the driver will see what he can do.

But the time wasted while the ambulance driver tries to see what he can do could cost lives. It is the most selfish kind of behaviour one can think of.

So far as I have observed, the presidential motorcade appears to have the best magic to unscramble the most intractable traffic snarl-up imaginable. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is or the amount of traffic at the robot or that the traffic  signals are not functioning.

The moment drivers observe those epithet-spitting, vicious-looking, finger-wagging presidential outriders they all want to scurry for safety. I have observed drivers driving the wrong way up a one-way or driving over the kerb to safety. In a matter of seconds the normally clogged intersection of Samora Machel and Rotten Row becomes a thoroughfare for the president’s motorcade with its stacato of blazing amber and blue lights.

What worries me is the lack of sense of civic duty on the part of our drivers. They will scramble out of the road out of fear when they see the presidential motorcade but race an ambulance to the robot.

There is the real possibility of being shot dead not just for racing the presidential motorcade but for failing to stop or clear the way. In other words we respond better to bullying and fear than to our conscience.

Few ever imagine that the SOS could save their child or their house. This says a lot about the bad driving standards on Zimbabwe’s roads and the carnage too. It is not the rules and good manners that matter but the fear of immediate consequences that will induce people to observe road rules.

So far it is only the president who reminds people of the Highway Code because you ignore the motorcade at your own peril. Zimbabwean drivers can understand only the language of force and violence.

And, as if to prove the point that we have become a nation of heartless brutes, yesterday morning somebody laid a mat of gravel stones over 200m along Samora Machel in the city centre without a care about the danger the loose stones posed to fellow drivers.