By Esete Yeshitla
It was a minor incident but speaks volumes about road safety awareness in Addis Ababa. Recently, a lady was telling a friend about the utter rage she felt when a male pedestrian who insulted her for not giving him the right to pass after the traffic light had turned green. He yelled at her with a heavy dose of extreme profanity as he continued to cross the road.
The insult was sexist and very offensive to women. What amazed her was that the man was oblivious to the fact that pedestrians were supposed to cross only when the light turns red.
“Our folks should be educated and the media has a big role to play in that,” she says.
In fact, a first-hand account of the incident is dumbfounding. The above incident occurred on Comoros Street around British Embassy. The traffic light is situated perhaps on one of the busiest junctions in the city. Often, more than 30 people cross the road at a time. Children, –accompanied by guardians or not, elementary- and high-school students, the old and young, from within the city or without – all cross the road, according to traffic officers monitoring the daily flow.
Many cross the street when the light turns red; however, there are a few others who cross after the light has turned green. And they cross in a relaxed manner, and as if wasting a few seconds after the light has turned green was no big deal.
Another attention-grabbing sight is that of some young pedestrians doing the reverse. They stop when the light turns red and cross when it is green. Motorists also routinely flout zebra crossings. “Zebra crossings are not seen by some drivers as a basic and essential traffic-regulating tool. They are rather viewed as a courtesy provided to pedestrians by some drivers,” one driver said.
True to form, some drive at high speed, scaring pedestrians. By way of defence, some drivers complain that there are pedestrians who walk slowly while talking on their mobile phones. Still there are also those who drive under the influence of alcohol, khat (a stimulant leaf) or other controlled substances like marijuana, and just ignore zebra crossings at will, resulting in serious accidents, with some causing fatalities. In addition, there is the absent-minded motorist who does not stop or slow down at zebra crossings.
According to a 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report, about 1.25 million people die each year as a result of traffic accidents. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 29.
Some might think that the presence of a large number of vehicles in the developed world correlates with a high incidence of traffic accidents; however, the reverse is true. Actually, 90 percent of road fatalities are in low- and middle-income countries, even though these countries have approximately half of the world’s vehicles.
According to the World Atlas, out of the 25 countries with a high number of traffic accidents, the Dominican Republic takes the lead with an estimated 41.7 traffic accident-related deaths per 100,000 people. Thailand follows with 38.1 and Venezuela is third with 37.2. From Africa, Nigeria leads with 33.7, followed by South Africa (31.9) and Guinea Bissau (31.2). According to the WHO report, Ethiopia, with a population of 90-plus million and 478,244 vehicles, registered 25.3 fatalities.
Deputy Inspector Assefa Mezgebu, public relations expert with the Addis Ababa Traffic Police Commission, and who regularly reports on traffic accidents in the city on Radio Fana FM, confirms that the Ethiopian society’s concept of road usage was “exceptional”, particularly when compared to other countries. “Though is has not reached the desired level in terms of reducing traffic accidents, efforts are being made to enforce traffic rules and regulations. Nevertheless, when it comes to pedestrians, it is a different story,” he told The Reporter.
According to Assefa, zebra crossings are expected to be used 75 percent of the time by motorists and 25 percent by pedestrians; however, most pedestrians have the wrong impression that pedestrians always have precedence at zebra crossings.
Even if there are 20 or 30 vehicles on the street, a single pedestrian expects all other traffic to yield to them at the zebra crossing. What pedestrians need to know is that they should not assume that they have precedence over any other traffic whenever they are at a zebra crossing. They should wait until there are only few vehicles on the street, and cross only when allowed to do so.
Assefa, a driver himself, has experience with careless pedestrians. “One day, a number of people, who were getting on and off the train, were crossing a street, and I stopped and gave way, as it was the right thing to do. So I waited until they all crossed the street. Then a single man showed up from nowhere. He was the only pedestrian crossing the road at the time, so I continued driving, assuming that he should give me priority. As I was crossing the zebra lines, the man hit the rear end of my car and said I should have seen and let him cross first, but when he saw that I was a police officer, he apologized immediately.”
In Western countries, there are pedestrian crosswalks on designated spots. However, crosswalks are also designed to keep pedestrians together where they can be seen by drivers, and where they can cross most safely amid the flow of vehicular traffic.
Signalized pedestrian crossings that have priority buttons for pedestrians clearly separate pedestrians and vehicles. Both parties know their rights and responsibilities and there are very few instances of fatalities in such cases. On the other hand, un-signalized crossings generally assist pedestrians, and usually prioritize pedestrians.
When the green light is on, drivers should slow down until pedestrians cross the zebra lines and they need to accelerate only after passing the crossing., Customarily though, what is noticed is that when the green light is on, or is about to be on, many cars speed up, and this is a major cause of accident.
Assefa is certain that most people were well aware of the purposes traffic lights serve. “I guess, may be some five percent, may not know what they are; but mostly, it is just sheer negligence,” he said, adding that even kindergarten children were taught by their teachers in school, and perfectly understand traffic lights.
These days, it was quite common to encounter careless pedestrians, Assefa said. “If you honk the horn, there are inappropriate behaviours and it has become common to get sarcastic remarks from some pedestrians like, “Is it your wedding day?” Or “Did you just buy a new horn?” and when you don’t sound the horn, some pedestrians get disappointed, he said.
Nowadays, in so many areas, sidewalks are well built with cobblestones and stone marbles; however, some pedestrians prefer walking on the street to waking on sidewalks. In addition, many do not cross by using zebra lines. “It is also common to see young people with headphones or ear buds who are listening to music while crossing the street. Similarly, others are observed chatting while leisurely crossing the road assuming that drivers would give them priority. “Pedestrians should be cautious, or else they can become victims,” Assefa says.
The situation in regional cities is different. In areas where most people gather like markets places, pedestrians are instructed through microphones to strictly use the left side of the road. Thus, such problems occur in cities mainly not because of lack of knowledge, but out of sheer negligence. So, the question remains, “why isn’t Addis Ababa following such a model?” Assefa says that a regulation for pedestrians was in the works and would be rolled out soon.
If pedestrians were fined a small amount of money or made to do community work for failing to abide by the regulation, the problem could be addressed, Assefa believes. “It can be enforced by recruiting the youth or using regular cops, as everything cannot be controlled by traffic police officers alone,” the deputy inspector said, adding that there would be a public announcement when the regulation is ready to be enforced.
Ed.’s Note: Esete Yeshitla is a contributing writer.