Live, Let Drive

The most depressing Ethiopian TV ad is a mother’s interior monologue. She reminisces about her daughter, the daughter’s bright future and the tragedy that followed. Through the use of acutely unsettling audiovisuals, she recounts her daughter’s death in a car accident.

The advertisement is sponsored by the Addis Abeba City Administration, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Vital Strategies as part of a concerted effort to ameliorate road accidents. Ethiopian authorities are also trying to reach people through different mediums, either in print, radio or TV.

Traffic accidents have become a major socio-economic issue to fret about. Last year, over 400 people died in road accidents. Close to four times that amount were seriously injured in the 2014/2015 fiscal year and property worth almost two hundred million dollars was lost. But data is unnecessary in this case, at least if one makes a living in Addis Abeba. If asked for an anecdote, most Addis Abebans would have a story to recount every month of the year about such accidents.

Peculiarly, there are not that many vehicles in the country. The ratio of inhabitants to cars is meagre in the Ethiopian context, standing at under a percentage point. But, again, statistics is not necessary to identify the inadequacy. Even in Addis Abeba, the most urbanised city in the country, a car for a single family is one vehicle too many.

But that is fast changing. The number of vehicles is growing. The past fiscal year was no different. In fact, it broke the record, with over a 100,000 having been introduced into the country. At the moment there are over 800,000 of them.

This is not good news to hapless pedestrians, drivers and passengers as it is only reasonable to assume that traffic accidents will continue to increase.

Perhaps, there is some consolation in the fact that the imported cars would be less faulty. More solace could be found by the fact that road infrastructure is brimming. Never mind the lifespan of the new roads – as a number of them have been collapsing owing to poor workmanship – there are more pavements, traffic lights, roundabouts and traffic signs than ever before. This shows that there are fewer excuses for running over someone.

Still, something seems to be missing. Awareness creation and infrastructure projects are not a bad idea, but they seem imprudent and hollow in light of the real culprit – incompetence.

I know this because I, too, am incompetent. Although I have never run over someone, if I was to drive a car through one of Addis’ crowded roads, I probably will. Nonetheless, I have been able to acquire a driver’s license.

I took a month-long driving course and was trained driving slowly on roads where cars barely move around the streets. Most of the lessons were concerned with getting me to pass the specific obstacles the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) would have for me during the driving examinations.

In a nutshell, the driver’s training school was more concerned with getting me to pass the tests rather than making me a good driver.

When Judgment Day arrived, I was slightly nervous, which was probably why I dropped a traffic cone. More embarrassingly, I had the headlights turned on the whole time. I was annoyed at the experience; my performance was worthy of a bad driver. I expected to fail.

I did not. I scored 84 – 10 points higher than the failing grade. I was happy, but it also made me take note. The process through which one acquires a driver’s license is nowhere as stringent as it should be given the country’s road accident record. My anecdote may have been one of inexperience, but there are many incidents I could recount where friends and relatives have been able to receive a driver’s license within a couple of weeks by means of bribery.

The Road’s Authority could make many changes in this regard. It could enforce a higher grade to pass the driving examinations. It could also require driver’s license hopefuls to train for more months than is the case right now and alter the nature of the exams so that the trainees do not train formulaically but actually become better at it.

Of course, doing so could conceivably spill trouble. It would mean fewer people getting a driver’s license and more trainees being stuck in driving schools and at the Licensing Authority, bringing with it all kinds of administrative and bureaucratic problems. With an expanding population, inefficient public transportation and growing income levels, it would mean a frustrated citizenry.

And for the government, fewer drivers would present a dilemma.

What else but shiny cars along Addis Abeba’s roads would they broadcast to show that there is a double-digit growth?

But the choice could not be more apparent. All solutions that are meant to cure causes and solve problems, in the long run, may incur some inconveniences today, but they would end up saving lives in the future.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Oct 07,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 910]



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