Increasingly dire accident statistics provided the impetus for action, including two bus accidents in Senegal that claimed 62 lives in January. In nearby Ivory Coast, the daily number of traffic fatalities has risen to 46, from just 12 in 2012.

In the region of the world most affected by traffic accidents, the death rate in sub-Saharan Africa is 27 per 100,000 inhabitants. That is three times higher than Europe’s average of nine and well above the global average of 18, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which manages 59 of the organization’s legal instruments for inland transport, including UN road safety conventions.

Every year, 1.3 million people around the world are killed in traffic accidents and millions more are injured, according to the World Health Organization.WHO) said.

A quarter of the world’s deaths

In Africa, traffic deaths account for about a quarter of the global number of victims, even though the continent has just under 2 percent of the world’s vehicle fleet, the UN secretary-general said. Special Envoy for Road SafetyJean Todt, who has just returned from a visit to the streets and highways of West Africa.

“Africa is particularly affected by the tragedy of road accidents, which are the leading cause of youth mortality,” he said.

Partners switch gears

Meeting with authorities and civil society in Senegal and Ivory Coast, Todt said the right investment can save lives.

Currently, governments, the private sector and civil society, with the help of the United Nations Road Safety Fund, are collaborating in a new project that ultimately aims to reduce road deaths and ensure vehicle safety, UNECE said.

The initiative supports the regulation of the export and import of used vehicles in Africa, particularly in terms of regulations and technical inspections. One of the goals is to import safer and more environmentally friendly vehicles in Africa to avoid tragic accidents.

The first harmonized approach in Africa to regulate imported used vehicles, the project, when fully implemented, will have a “significant impact” on the environment, health and road safety, the agency said.

African countries commit to strengthening reporting of road traffic fatalities.

© UNICEF/Tanya Bindra

African countries commit to strengthening reporting of road traffic fatalities.

The latest tragedies are causing a public outcry

In addition to the fatal incidents in Senegal in January, the same month, in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, a bus accident killed 14 people and injured 70 others, while a similar collision in August 2022 killed 25 people in northern Abidjan.

These bus accidents have highlighted the obsolescence of vehicle fleets in both countries along with a lack of technical control and non-compliance with highway regulations, the agency said.

Combat unsafe vehicles

Addressing aging vehicle fleets requires particular attention in West Africa, UNECE said, adding that Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire rely mainly on imports of heavily used vehicles.

In 2016, the average age of the vehicle fleet in Senegal was 18 years, with 40 percent older than 20 years, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Senegal had passed a decree in 2001 limiting the age of imported cars to 5 years, and changed it in 2012 to 8 years, UNECE said.

“vicious circle of poverty”

Efforts are also being made to protect the most vulnerable road users, namely pedestrians and cyclists, who are often also the poorest and youngest, the agency reported. Indeed, Africa has the highest proportion of cyclists and pedestrians killed, accounting for 44 percent of total road deaths.

Besides the human tragedy, road accidents trap countries in a vicious cycle of poverty. According to the World Bank, the costs of traffic accidents make up eight percent of Senegal’s annual GDP and 7.8 percent of Ivory Coast’s.

Dealing with fake driver’s licenses for drunk driving

Drunken driving, speeding, drowsiness, carelessness, failure to use seat belts and helmets and lack of compliance with traffic rules are the main cause of road accidents in Africa, the agency reported.

Other contributing factors were an aging fleet of public transport vehicles, fake driving licences, lack of enforcement of penalties and a lack of rigorous technical inspections.

Among the solutions to be implemented are the need to strengthen health care for accident victims, and compliance with the African Road Safety Charter and The UN’s basic conventions on road safety.

Raising awareness also plays a key role, UNECE said.

Strong new measures

After the tragic accidents in January, Senegal announced strong measures to make the roads safer. This included a national road safety plan, with 22 measures aimed at reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries by at least 50 percent

The measures range from strengthening road controls to restricting the circulation of public transport vehicles. It also means banning the import of used tires, providing free technical inspection in Dakar for transport and goods vehicles and opening technical inspection centers across the country.

First traffic police

In Ivory Coast, new initiatives strengthen road safety laws and create a traffic police. After several fatal accidents in the north of the country, the government decided in 2021 to apply helmet wearing for all cyclists.

Commitments are there, whether in Senegal or Ivory Coast, UNECE said, adding that what remains is the hardest part: implementing and measuring progress.

Read more about what the UN is doing for road safety here.