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Road safety does not belong in the rear-view mirror

Mohammed Adjei Sowah
By Mohammed Adjei Sowah
Mayor of Accra, Ghana

Hon. M. Adjei Sowah has been Mayor of Accra since March 24, 2017. The Lapaz intersection redesign was funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Partnership for Healthy Cities initiative.

Posted on Thursday, 18 April 2019 14:20, updated on Friday, 19 April 2019 13:56

On of the main thoroughfares out of Accra, Ghana is congested by traffic at the end of the work day. Olivier Asselin/AP/SIPA

Ghana's capital city has partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Partnership for Healthy Cities initiative to reduce road traffic deaths and improve policy outcomes

Accra, with a population of 4 million, is Ghana’s cultural and economic center, with crowded streets, sidewalks bustling with vendors and new businesses popping up all along the main thoroughfares.

This busy streetscape is typical of a growing city, but the fact is that our roads were not designed to accommodate so many people and cars. They have become unsafe, even deadly, requiring emergency measures that we are just beginning to implement.

I know about the dangers of Accra’s roads from my own personal experience.

In 2000, I was on the back of a friend’s motorbike heading to a rally when an oncoming car crossed the lane divider and crashed into us, head on. I was thrown from the bike, and my friend went through the car’s windshield. To make matters worse, neither of us was wearing a helmet. I was hospitalized for a month and never fully healed—to this day, I experience severe back pain.

It’s a miracle we survived.

Traffic crashes claim more than 1.35 million lives around the world each year; they are the leading cause of death for children and young adults. According to the World Health Organization, these collisions kill more people than HIV/AIDS, than tuberculosis, even more than diarrheal diseases.

  • In Accra, between 2011 and 2015, more than 13,000 traffic crashes led to 909 deaths. Speeding, drink driving, the non-use of helmets by some motorcyclists and the refusal by motorists to wear seat belts lead to crashes, injuries and deaths that rip families apart and harm our economy.

Pedestrians in Accra are the most frequent victims; in 2015, they accounted for more than half of all traffic fatalities. They frequently find themselves needing to cross dangerous stretches of road in Accra without traffic lights or other protections.

Residential neighbourhoods, shopping districts and schools have developed alongside busy thoroughfares, and roadways have expanded exponentially. Running is often the only way for residents to make it all the way from one side of a highway to the other, and pedestrian medians are generally too small to accommodate everyone who needs to stop half-way.

We have built a number of new highways over the past few years, and every time we make room for more and more cars, we see it as a celebration of Accra’s economic growth. But as our city grows, the number of pedestrians grow as well, and crossing these larger roads has become increasingly difficult and dangerous.

It’s time now to get serious about the high death toll. One of our main focuses has been the George W. Bush highway, which travels through a particularly dense area of the city. We have just completed the redesign of one of the busiest intersections on the road, the Lapaz intersection, where the Abeka Road crosses the highway’s 13 lanes — four for eastbound vehicles, four for westbound, two service lanes flanking the highway on each side and an exclusive left turning lane for east and west bound movements.

  • First, we expanded the time given pedestrians to cross this dangerous highway from 18 seconds to 35 seconds. The crossings have also been given a makeover, with newly painted crosswalks, larger medians to provide a safe refuge for those crossing and lowered curbs to accommodate children, the elderly and those with disabilities.

The width of the left turning lanes have been adjusted as well; now they narrow progressively in the lead up to the intersection lanes, so that drivers slow down when approaching the intersection and to reduce the distance that pedestrians need to traverse.

In our efforts to create more space for pedestrians, we have relocated illegally stationed vendors and illegally parked cars from a total of 35km of sidewalks throughout Accra. We also built 400 meters of pedestrian walkways and re-marked 20 pedestrian crossings at high-traffic locations; all between January and June, 2018. And we have enhanced training of our police to bolster enforcement of traffic laws.

We cannot stand still, of course, until all the streets of Accra are safer. Every morning when I wake up, my injured back reminds me that not a single road crash is acceptable. Economic development and expansion should not cater only to automobiles.

Accra can provide leadership for other cities around the world to address traffic fatalities. My own painful encounter reminds me that we need to ensure that traveling our roads is not such a deadly risk.

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