According to WHO estimates, African countries account for more than one-fifth of the world’s road traffic deaths, despite not quite representing one-sixth of the world’s population. Global success on the respective SDG target therefore depends on the continent.

According to the African Road Safety Observatory (ARSO), the number of road deaths in 13 African countries barely changed from 2016 to 2019. ARSO counted 37,379 deaths in 2016 and 37,168 in 2019. Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), tell a different story, with 121,718 deaths in these countries in 2016 alone.

Discrepancies like this prove that the continent lacks accurate and comprehensive road safety data. ARSO, which is run by the African Union, relies on government statistics, which are mainly provided by the police. In contrast, the WHO makes estimates based on information from hospitals and health centers. According to ARSO, eight of the 22 countries surveyed in 2019 could not provide death counts. On the other hand, three reported fatalities, but had no data on accidents and non-fatal injuries.

These issues are common in low- and lower-middle-income countries around the world. The United Nations General Assembly has therefore designated WHO as the agency responsible for monitoring progress in road safety. Numbers matter, because better road safety is part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Target 3.6 is to halve the number of deaths and injuries in road accidents.

Given the huge disparities in death registration systems, WHO and other international organizations use mathematical modeling to estimate deaths. When national reporting systems are strong and closely monitor the reality on the ground, they produce more reliable figures. In Africa, however, WHO estimates tend to be four times higher on average than officially recorded figures. Things differ from country to country, and in some places the discrepancy between WHO estimates and government statistics is much greater.

The challenge of under-reporting

Under-reporting is a big problem. Police records are the main source of data on traffic accidents and injuries. However, the police do not report all accidents or injuries. In many cases, they may not even be notified of an accident. Moreover, police resources are limited and even declining in many countries. Too often, law enforcement prioritizes things other than traffic accidents. A consequence may be that they only document accidents with fatalities, but not those with serious injuries. Additionally, in rural areas where police presence is low, reporting tends to be particularly poor.

Researchers compared the two main sources of road safety data in Ethiopia. They found that police records recorded up to 60% of road deaths, but at most 24% of injuries. By contrast, hospital records showed only a third of deaths, but more than half of injuries. One of the causes of this distortion was that people who died at the crash site were not usually taken to hospital.

The study also revealed patterns of under-reporting. Traffic police were particularly bad at classifying data on deaths and injuries of young and female victims, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. The study concluded that neither data system independently provided accurate coverage of road traffic fatalities and injuries.

According to the 2018 Global Road Safety Report published by the WHO, 1.35 million lives are lost each year due to road traffic accidents worldwide. In 2018, more than half (53%) of road fatalities were ‘vulnerable road users’, which includes pedestrians, cyclists and people using two or three wheels.

Relatively few motor vehicles

African countries tend to have relatively few motor vehicles per capita. In South Africa, the most prosperous sub-Saharan country, the figure is around 170 per 1000 people, in Nigeria, a lower-middle-income country, it is around 60. In low-income countries like Tanzania, Gambia or Malawi, the numbers drop to single digits. Comparative numbers are over 800 in the US, not quite 600 in Germany and 500 in the Netherlands.

Nevertheless, the roads are particularly dangerous in Africa (for the example of Ghana, see Maxwell Suuk at The WHO’s “Africa region”, which does not include Egypt, Tunisia and a few other countries, accounts for more than a fifth of road deaths, but less than a sixth of the world’s population. Clearly, the success of the road safety SDGs will depend on Africa.

The AU-led Africa Transport Policy Program (SSATP) said in a report in 2021: “Most of the existing data collection systems focus primarily on car occupants and produce figures that are significantly different (and generally lower) than figures derived from mathematical calculations. models using socio-economic variables specific to each country. In 2014, SSATP recognized that Africa’s road safety performance had deteriorated and was becoming a major impediment to Africa’s competitiveness. In other words, successful development depends on improving road safety.

Why the risk is so great

The bad news is that the risk of being killed on the roads increases every year. Death estimates fell from 24.1 per 100,000 people in 2010 to 26.6 per 100,000 in 2016, according to the WHO. An important reason is that car traffic is also increasing. However, the risk of death varies widely across Africa, with little change recorded across sub-regions since 2010. The global figure was 18.2 in 2016.

To a large extent, the causes of road accidents are the same in Africa as elsewhere in the world. These include speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, failure to wear seat belts in cars and helmets on motorcycles, or distracted driving, for example.

These problems are, however, exacerbated by poor infrastructure. Roads tend to have too few lanes and often lack sidewalks. At night, the lack of public lighting often proves fatal. Potholes are common. When a major accident occurs, a traffic jam often ensues. Ambulances are rare and they are too often stuck in traffic jams. First responders can only dream of the helicopters some of their colleagues in high-income countries have. Health systems are weak in other ways too, so patients often don’t receive up-to-date treatment, which could save lives or reduce the long-term effects of injury. Also, in many cases, neither the drivers who cause an accident nor the people they injure are insured.

To compound the problems, drivers often use cars and trucks even if they are in poor condition, with faulty lights or brakes, for example. There is also a tendency to overload vehicles with too many passengers and too much cargo.

Political issues

Government action can make things better. Regulations must be well designed, competently controlled and rigorously enforced. To some extent, African countries are rising to the challenge, but many still have long journeys ahead of them.

All 13 countries surveyed by ARSO in 2016 and 2019 reported that their governments had national legislation in place. It limits the use of drugs while driving and regulates the use of cell phones and helmets. They also had drink-driving laws. Only one, however, had legislation requiring the wearing of seat belts (for the application of the legal requirement to register motorcycles in Malawi, see Raphael Mweninguwe at

Of the remaining 22 countries surveyed in 2019, 16 confirmed that they had tasked a government agency or department with road safety, and seven said they had adopted national road safety strategies. In only two cases, however, were these strategies fully funded.

Ben Ezeamalu is a senior journalist who works for Premium Times in Lagos.

[email protected]
Twitter: @callmebenfigo

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