The Overlooked Killer

Miscano Messelleh is a 52-year-old truckdriver, not a menace to society. But for many Ethiopians, the 4.5-metric-ton white Isuzu truck he propels down Ethiopian roads each night, and the thousands of others just like it, incite enough fear that locals have given them a nickname to symbolize their destructive power: they call the trucks "Al Qaedas." Messelleh himself killed someone while at the wheel recently, pointing to a spot just above the engine where paint is missing. About a month ago, driving to Addis Ababa down a notoriously chaotic stretch of the highway—full of trucks, pedestrians, donkey carts and livestock—he struck a man in his early 20s, who sailed through his windshield. The young man's parents have taken him to court.

These are everyday stories in Ethiopia, which has the highest per capita rate of car fatalities in the world, with 190 deaths per 10,000 vehicles. Across sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS is the only killer more devastating than traffic for people ages 15 to 44. For children, traffic is the No. 1 killer. An African is 100 times more likely than an American to die in a car. According to the World Health Organization, Africa has 4 percent of the world's cars—but accounts for more than 11 percent of the world's traffic casualties, and that is probably conservative. The WHO figures that road casualties in Africa are underreported by as much as twelvefold, and it predicts the death toll will rise an additional 80 percent by 2020, as the population grows and becomes more motorized.

Death by driving is an epidemic. Like any disease, its advance could be slowed with enough initiative, money and education. Yet while international funding for AIDS, malaria and TB totaled $4.7 billion over the past seven years, only $100 million was spent on promoting road safety. Belatedly, the world is taking notice. Last week the United Nations called road safety a "public health crisis, on the scale of AIDS, malaria and TB," and announced a global summit to be held in Russia next year.

One reason highway deaths are overlooked is that it's hard to pinpoint a cause. According to Messelleh, a big reason Ethiopian truckdrivers can be so lethal is their use of khat, an amphetamine-like plant they chew to stay alert behind the wheel for days on end, oblivious to the drowsiness that sets in when the drug wears off. "One of my friends went five days straight without sleeping," Messelleh says of a fellow truckdriver revved up on khat. "He drove into a ditch and died."

Another problem is the aging fleet of African vehicles, almost all without airbags, and the harried people who drive them. Most taxis, for example, are 1980s models, and the minibuses many Africans rely on are typically more than 15 years old and have logged hundreds of thousands of kilometers. What's more, Sgt. Daniel Kebeda, a traffic cop who works a hectic Addis Ababa intersection aptly named Confusion Square, points out that Ethiopian regulations don't require truckdrivers to rest. "If a driver sleeps, he'll lose his job," he says.

Education poses another challenge. Kebeda figures that only four of 100 drivers he sees wear seat belts. And most pedestrians show little understanding, or perhaps just plain disregard, for how long it takes to stop a speeding car. They hardly ever use crosswalks and express dismay at the results. "I've heard people blame accidents on witch doctors, on 'black spots' in the road, when, in fact, most traffic injuries are just the product of a series of easily modifiable circumstances," says Jeffrey Witte, the American founder of Amend, a road-safety NGO that works in Ghana.

Corruption raises the traffic risks, too. Abu Moune, a veteran Addis Ababa taxi driver, says there are too many unskilled drivers because anyone "can easily pay a bribe to get a driver's license, without passing a test at all." When Moune was hit by a drunken driver last September, police let the offender go: "There is no fine. Drunk-driving laws are not enforced."

A few governments are trying to stop the mayhem. When a 1996 World Bank report put Rwanda on a list of the most-dangerous driving nations, Kigali enacted a raft of new rules. It cut speed limits by 20kph (from 60), required motorcyclists to wear helmets, made the licensing test much harder and imposed huge fines for driving without a seat belt—nearly 20 percent of a civil servant's monthly salary. The government also sent a message by firing nearly 100 officers caught waiving fines for bribes. The crackdown angered truckdrivers from neighboring countries, but that was a good sign. Road fatalities have fallen by more than 30 percent since Kigali imposed the new traffic regime.

Others could do more. The G8 club of leading industrial nations has earmarked $1.2 billion for road development in sub-Saharan Africa, but only about 0.5 percent gets spent on safety, says Avi Silverman, a spokesman for the Make Roads Safe Campaign. Countries that use this money to build faster roads without training drivers and pedestrians, or taking any other basic safety steps, will reap the predictable death tolls.