DR IAN CLARKE: We need to take action now on public transport

The Link Bus accident in which twenty-one people died has left us all shocked and saddened because of the senseless loss of life. This was an accident waiting to happen as I warned some time ago. More recently one of my staff was travelling on a Link Bus when it met another Link bus on a corner. The bus swerved and hit the grass verge so violently that all the passengers were flung to one side of the bus. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, just bumps and bruises, but she called a workmate saying that they had been involved in an accident. As a consequence I contacted the Link Bus management who told me nothing had been reported, so it seemed there was no system of incident reporting.

On Wednesday afternoon I passed the scene of the Link Bus accident and saw the carnage. I later called a Link Bus manager who said he did not know what caused the accident, but that the driver had twenty years of experience. The next day an eyewitness released a report on social media: the bus had reached the tea estates just outside Fort Portal and was behind a fuel tanker, which it was trying to pass. Since the tanker was empty and the road was downhill the tanker was also travelling at speed, but the bus driver could see there was no oncoming traffic so he pulled out to pass. After he passed he was now travelling at high speed and had to get back on his own side of the road. But buses have a high centre of gravity, and in the time of action of swerving back to the left on a right hand bend the bus turned over. It continued to summersault and tumble many times after it left the road. Link buses are powerful with a fast top speed, so this driver had clearly been in the habit of driving fast for years, in addition no one in the company had objected or intervened.

The Minister of Works and Transport has now banned Link Bus, but this is only a permanent expedient since people nevertheless need public transport. However, we need to use this opportunity to develop a long-term solution. The bus in the accident was carrying seventy-two passengers, though the official capacity is 62 (seemingly they do not count children).

That is as many as Uganda Airlines carries in its bombardier aircraft, but in the case of air travel we ensure that the driver of the plane is highly trained and the airline is closely regulated. Bus companies carry thousands of passengers every single day (far more than Ugandan air travellers, but the drivers seem to be poorly trained and disciplined, and the bus companies are not highly regulated. In this one bus the driver had the care of seventy-two lives, but thought so little of this responsibility that he tried to execute a move that would have been difficult in a small car.

I wrote recently about Ugandans not taking risks seriously and dying young as a consequence. Our careless attitude to road safety is truly a huge contributing factor to the death toll of Ugandans, but what are we doing about it? Putting in more speed bumps will not solve the problem, or already putting in more speed checks, because bus drivers know their routes and where the speed checks are likely to be located.

There are several major programs that should be initiated. The first is specialized training of bus drivers not only on how to excursion, but on safety and how to appreciate the grave responsibility they have for their passengers. We must begin to think of bus drivers like airline pilots. The second project would be to aim the traffic police in road safety and traffic laws, since at the moment their presence on the roads contributes very little.

The bus companies themselves must also be tasked with monitoring speeding. The speed of a means can be recorded by a tracker device mounted in the means, which can be observed in real time, putting the responsibility for the behaviour of the drivers on the company.

As things stand Link Bus did little to notice past warnings, leaving me with the feeling that bus companies turn a blind eye to their drivers making very fast turnaround times. It is obvious that the price we are paying for public transport in terms of the risk to passengers is unacceptable, and that the government and the bus companies together must take long-term measures that end the carnage.

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