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Fear and anxiety for drivers

Fear and anxiety for drivers

Back in 2009, the Addis Ababa City Council unanimously voted to ratify the amended traffic bill that was back then highly anticipated. The bill was discussed with the taxi owners' association, inter-city public transport bus owners' associations, and traffic officers. Seven years down the road, the implementation of the regulation is now in full effect. Some of the provisions are “too strict and do not consider the conditions of the country”, according to drivers, who fear that suspension from driving would cost them a lot, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

A driver kneeling down on the road and pleading mercy to a traffic police is a scene that is a bit bizarre. This situation becomes a bit more confusing when looking at the driver's assistant sobbing. Why are the driver and his assistant acting as if it is the end of the world for simple traffic fines?

This scene actually becomes very paradoxical for those who have witnessed the the encounters between traffic police officers and drivers in Addis Ababa, which sometimes lead to verbal assaults from both sides. Ironically this situation happened in Dessie, Amhara Regional State 400km north of Addis Ababa. Surrounded by mountainous terrains, getting to Dessie is one heck of a ride. The twists of the famous Haregot valley tests the skills  of drivers.

Three weeks ago, a taxi commuting from a neighborhood known as Shell to Piazza was stopped by a traffic police because the taxi had on board an extra passenger. The traffic police asked for his license and registration number and the driver provided it in a very humble manner.

The traffic police took the license and started going through his phone. After a couple of minutes he murmured something which was difficult to hear for those sitting in the back row. Whatever the traffic police said put the driver and the conductor in a very frantic situation.

They got off the car and started begging the traffic police for mercy. Neglecting the begging the traffic police took the driver. The conductor followed them waving his hand, still begging.

The passengers’ response was also a bit confusing. Everyone was sitting solemnly until they left. Another driver who was at the scene offered to help by taking the passengers to their respective destinations. The awkward silence during the ride was broken with a guy in the front saying “the driver reached his point.” A heated discussion followed up regarding the newly-implemented penalty for traffic offenses which are recorded by points and will ultimately lead to the suspension or revoking of licenses. A couple of the passengers were saying 10 points is the maximum and the conductor said it is 14. Many of the passengers seem to have a knowhow about license suspension and revoking.

Amhara Regional State is the first to implement the new Council of Ministers Regulation No. 208/2011. Though it has been only a week in Addis Ababa since enforcement started, according to Tadesse Tilahun, who is head of the South Wollo Zone Road Traffic Department Road Safety Assurance Core Main Work Process, it has been a year since the region started implementing the new regulation.

Tilahun also says that other regions such as Tigray and Southern regional states have started implementing it following Amhara. In relation to the implementation, which started this week, many of Addis Ababa’s taxi drivers The Reporter talked to expressed their dissatisfaction.

The Road Transport and Traffic Control regulation is categorized into six offenses. The first category of offense has two points, the second level three, the third four, the fourth five, the fifth six and the sixth has seven points. Accordingly, first-time violators will pay a fine of 40-180 birr according to the category of offenses.

After the second offense, extra points will be added to the prior points. When one reaches 14-16 points the license will be suspended for six months and the driver will only get the license back after getting rehabilitation training. The duration of suspension time increases when the points are 17-19 which is one year and when it is more than 20 the license will be revoked and the driver has to apply for a new license only after two years. The record will stay for two years even after a six-month suspension.

Some of the offenses include honking horn in improper places (two points), parking a vehicle on entry or exit locations (three points), putting fuel in the presence of passengers (four points), not fastening seat belts including those of passengers (four points), releasing excess exhaust fumes and smokes from cars (four points), playing loud music (five points), inappropriate passing over of a vehicle (six points), and not giving priority to pedestrians (seven points). 

According to Yabibal Addis, head of the Addis Ababa Transport Bureau (AATB), the issuance of this regulation has many rationales. Yabibal states that road traffic accidents are escalating at an alarming rate and are causing the loss of lives and damages to property adding that accidents occur because drivers violate traffic rules and regulations. He explained about the atrocious incidents that are threatening the city in a press conference that was held at Capital Hotel and Spa on February 19.

Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) Coordinator of Finance and Economy Cluster with a deputy prime ministerial portfolio and minister of Communications and Information Technology, on his part highlighted that the accidents caused by reckless drivers are shockingly increasing.

Assistant Inspector Assefa Mezgebu, public relations expert of Addis Ababa Traffic Office, also believes that the number of traffic road accidents is increasing every year. Assefa states that the number of deaths was 3,331, severe injuries 6,039, and minor injuries 5,888 two years ago. However, last year's figure reveal that there were 3,847 deaths, 5,634 severe injuries and 5,839 minor injuries. He also estimates that the amount of property that was destroyed is up to a whopping one billion birr.

Putting all this into account, the regulation started to be operational after an intensive training was given to traffic police officers and transport officials in Amhara. This was commissioned to DAF TEC social ICT Solutions, which designed the whole system for the regional states, including registering driver’s license information to the central database, data of traffic violations connecting all the cities, towns and woredas in Amhara.

Denekew Berihun, founder and manager of DAF TEC social ICT Solutions told The Reporter that they designed the software to set up a traffic operations center in order to direct the traffic management with modern knowledge and technology support.

Though the regulation mainly focuses on drivers, Denekew says that the target of the software is not drivers but also vehicles. The software has an account of the traffic police officers and the transport officials who regulate the process. Traffic police and transport officials use mobile phones to punish drivers. The way it works, according to Denekewu, is they have their own specific passwords and send SMS with details including license numbers of the drivers and the type of offense at the spot. Denekewu says that if the point reaches 14 or more they receive a message of an automatic suspension. Then the officer takes the license on the spot. The details of the offense, the area, and the details of the driver, the name of the traffic police official and the vehicles plate number will be registered on the website instantly. This software also allows drivers to request their record including the names of traffic police officials who penalized them.

They also designed a smartphone application but since there is no budget earmarked for the purchase of smartphones by the regions Denekew says that the only option they have is using SMS. Even with SMS there are some challenges in remote woredas where network coverage is low.

The software also records top performing traffic police officers and includes a reversal system, which enables drivers to request for complaint and have a penalty reversed. Following the implementation of the regulation in Amhara, 86,232 drivers were penalized in various offenses from which 2,159 drivers have been suspended or their licenses revoked within a year.

In Tigray – within the six months of operations – only 26 were suspended and 4,424 were penalized, which according to Denekew, is because of the various operations of the regulation. In the Southern region 10,815 were penalized and 86 licenses were suspended or revoked in one month while Oromia is currently in its testing phase.

A couple of drivers The Reporter talked to in Dessie did not hide their fear and frustration. Many of the drivers start as assistants and become drivers. This is not an easy process where they have to save a relatively considerable amount of money to have their driving licenses. Jemal Mitiku now owns a taxi after 15 years of hassle. According to Jemal, the implementation of the regulation was like dropping a bombshell not only for him but also for many drivers. Jemal says that with the start of the implementation, the traffic police officers have become very strict. He has now lost his license and has hired a driver for his taxi. “I have a backup plan but the others could not escape this and many of them are either unemployed, are looking for jobs or doing some minimal job,” Jemal says.

It has been four months since he was suspended and is not working but is lucky enough to get his income from his taxi. However, Yilma Alemu is not as fortunate as Jemal, whose license is revoked for two years. He has now started to work at a fuel station. Yilma – a man of few words – is infuriated by the circumstances. He was punished for six months but later got his license back. Eventually, he was penalized again. One traffic officer told him he has to pay fine and after a couple of days another traffic officer told him his license has been revoked. “What does that even mean? I was dependent on relatives for six months and almost finished my savings. Now one traffic officer tells me one thing and the other tells me it has been revoked,” Yilma says.

According to Jemal, some traffic police officers blackmail drivers and receive bribes. “Back in old days one can pay 100 birr in bribe and get away with it. Now one has to pay at least 500 birr in order to save their driving license,” Jemal says.

Denekew also talks about these irregularities. One incident he mentions is where a traffic police accepted a bribe in Dessie while sending the message at the same time. This same driver was charged with another offense and when he was told he was suspended he argued and told the story. After an investigation, the traffic officer was punished. Apart from the driving license suspension, drivers in Dessie resent the regulation saying that it opened a door for traffic police officers and drivers to manipulate the system and be corrupted. This gap is not hidden from the higher officials. Commander Seid Muhe, head of the South Wollo Zone Police Department Road Traffic Safety Assurance Core Work Process, says that they have put in place controlling measures such as carefully recruiting traffic police and transport officials, vigorous trainings including ethics, and listening to the society’s complaints. Even if that is the case, many of the drivers who looked into the details of the regulation say it gives excessive power to traffic police officers.

Tilahun also agrees with this somehow. “It is very detailed and there is nothing under the sky which has not been included in the regulation,” he says.

While responding to question from journalists, Debretsion said that the gap might open doors for corruption. “In a system there are always defects and we should see the bigger picture. There will be few people who might do wrong,” Debretsion says.

Though this has been the experience of various regions, Addis Ababa has a different system where the traffic fines will be paid through Lehulu Kifiya Technologies PLC. According to Munir Duri, founder and general manager of Lehulu Kifiya Technologies, the service will be provided at the 34 stations of Lehulu with 284 desks. In that regard, the drivers will pay their fines at Lehulu Kifya. The details of the previous offenses will be stored at the national data center.

Following the implementation of the regulation, drivers are now panicking. The fear of insecurity of losing their job, being unemployed and not being able to support their families is taking over. Kindalem Tadesse, 25, is one of the drivers who is imagining a darker tomorrow. Though he is not informed about the details of the regulations, for him and many other drivers suspension and revoking of driving licenses is the worst thing that can happen.

According to Kindalem, some of the offenses such as double parking and giving priority to pedestrians seem improper. He argues that it has not been well thought out since there is lack of ample parking space in addition to the heedless demands of passengers. Kindalem was pointing at the road exhibiting that many cars were parked on the road side. “When we double park to let passengers get off, we will be punished for it. Where should we park then since there is no parking space?” he asks.

Other drivers, who were present during his interview, interrupted him and started yelling angrily. “We will migrate to another country!” “It costs more than ten thousand birr to get a license. Does the government have any idea how hard it is to get that much money?” they said angrily.

There were angry and sad talks about the suspension and revoking. Bilal Anbesse, former president of the Taxi Drivers Association, says that taxis covering vast areas for more than 12 hours will not be free from offenses. “This is the nature of the work. Because of the shortage of public transport, sometimes drivers are forced to have on board extra passengers out of compassion,” he says.

The main gap in the regulation, according to Bilal, is that the focus is on the drivers while eliminating other factors such as passengers, pedestrians and the road. According to Bilal, this regulation does not affect private cars and mainly focus on taxis.

Some of the problems that challenge taxis include lack of parking space, unavailability of traffic signs, narrow roads, and unavailability of pedestrian walkways, which, according to Bilal, force taxis to violate the traffic regulations. “We are punished for reasons that we don’t know such as parking cars in places which do not have clear traffic signs,” Bilal says. “Who benefits from this law? Our question is not answered. This regulation makes sense if other factors are considered,” says Bilal

The drivers had a discussion with Assistant Inspector Assefa Mezgebu, who according to Bilal, had an understanding of the situation of the city. During the discussion, Assefa noted that traffic police officers should consider situations and to be a good judge of character. He believes that the regulation is good in theory but did not consider the country’s situation.

In Addis Ababa drivers fear what this regulation might or might not create. On the other hand, those who had experienced the implementation have mixed feelings. Drivers resent it but Tilahun says that many drivers are now careful because of the new regulation and having on board extra number of passengers is completely declining in many of the areas.

On his part, Commander Seid says that the number of accidents has decreased within a year after the implementation. Though there might be other factors, he strongly believes the regulation had contributed greatly to safety. Tilahun and Seid are sympathetic about the case of the drivers whose license have been suspended or revoked. But on the other hand, they say it is for a greater cause which resulted in having extra cautious drivers.

Assefa Mezgebu on his part says that he shares the worry of Bilal and the drivers but hopes that the regulation would bring the intended change in significantly reducing traffic accidents. Acknowledging that some of the provisions did not consider the country’s situation, Assefa advises traffic police officers to put the situation into account. “There are drivers who commit offenses because of various situations and there are those who do it deliberately. So the traffic officers should be a good judge of character in punishing those who do not do it deliberately,” Assefa says.

Ed.'s Note: Shaida Hussein of The Reporter has contributed to this story.