PRECIOUS lives continue to be lost at the hands of “reckless” commuter omnibus drivers on the country’s roads primarily due to a laxity in abiding by — and the inconsistent enforcement of — traffic regulations by the operators and responsible authorities respectively.
Following the horror crash that killed 10 people along the City-Chitungwiza Road last week after a commuter omnibus veered off the road and hit a tree, there has been a flurry of calls for drivers and operators to be responsible.
Although cries of outrage have begun to sound like a broken record as similar calls have been made in the wake of other fatal accidents in the past, particularly along the same highway, they were likely to die down as public memories would be trampled under the march of time.
People who spoke to NewsDay in the wake of the disaster highlighted that such accidents would continue for as long as the solution matrix — which includes the minibus operators, drivers and the police — remained disjointed.
Several innocent lives have been sacrificed on the altar of profits
as omnibus operators released onto the road unworthy vehicles, according to Pamela Mushambi of Waterfalls.
“It’s unfortunate that every time an accident occurs, we hear that either the driver was not licensed or the vehicle was not insured and therefore not supposed to be on the road,” she said.
“I think this shows that those who own the kombis don’t care about their customers so they put their lives at risk as long as they get money.”
It emerged following the Chitungwiza accident that the driver was unqualified to drive a public service vehicle because he reportedly acquired his driver’s licence recently and, therefore, did not
have the five years driving experience required for commuter omnibuses.
A commuter omnibus driver who identified himself as Luckson said although people often accused them of being reckless, that was usually an unfair assessment because no driver planned to be involved in an accident or wished to kill passengers.
He said although drivers often desired to be extra–cautious on the road, there was a raft of external factors that often compelled them to speed, often with horrendous consequences.
“Our bosses set certain targets for us and if you are to keep your job, you must meet that target,” he said. “On the other hand, police officers at roadblocks also take part of the proceeds, so at the end of the day you do whatever you do to meet the target.”
He added that this was one of the reasons why drivers ended up speeding because they would be racing against time, especially during peak hours, so that they would break even after factoring in costs of fuel and what he called “police payouts”.
This was in reference to bribe money he said they paid the police, ranging from $3-$10, to evade stiffer penalties that would ask for more and, consequently, eat deep into the day’s profits.
Luckson said this was also one of the reasons why some omnibus crews ended up picking up people at undesignated spots because if they queued for their turn at the official pick-up points, they would never make any profit as there would be too many omnibuses.
Harare, according to the city authorities, has four official ranks at Charge Office, Market Square, Copacabana and Fourth Street. But as the number of public transport omnibuses on the road has continued to swell over the past few years, the official terminuses seem to have been overwhelmed.
Commuter omnibus operators’ obligations
Although the introduction of the mini-buses into the country’s public transport system in the mid-1990s was welcomed as a panacea to mounting public transport shortages, it has, in recent years, turned the country’s roads into death traps.
Commuter omnibus operators, according to those who spoke to NewsDay, have not helped the situation because of unprofessional approach to the public transport business through recruitment of unqualified drivers, use of unregistered and unroadworthy vehicles among other sins.
Maxwell Makope of Budiriro in Harare suggested that operators should be legally compelled to fulfil certain obligations to ensure that they would be in control of how their vehicles were used on the road.
“There have been reports that the person driving the kombi to Chitungwiza was not the driver, and we see all these things happening where the conductor is given a vehicle when he is not qualified,” he said.
“I think the operators should craft contracts for the drivers that forbid them to handover the vehicle to anybody else.”
The owner of the commuter omnibus, Fortune Ganha, has since indicated that the driver who was driving the vehicle was not his employee.
“All I can say is that he was not the driver I employed. My driver gave him the keys and he ended up in the accident,” he said.
Karen Kawecha of Greendale, Harare said it was disturbing that the majority of public service vehicles were not fit to be on the road and urged the police to be more vigilant.
“I think the problem we have now is that vehicles that are not supposed to be on the road are no longer being impounded,” Karen said. “The police should impound every kombi that does not have the relevant documentation.”
Traffic police: Part of the problem or solution?
Incensed commuters have argued that the Chitungwiza accident would likely have been avoided if the police had professionally played their role. Like many other roads that lead into the central business district, the Chitungwiza Highway often has at least three police roadblocks.
“We need an explanation as to how a commuter omnibus with an unqualified driver, has no permit and has several defects, continues to ply a particular route, passing through police roadblocks undetected,” Robert Hukuimwe of Chitungwiza queried.
He said he had observed that usually when a commuter omnibus was flagged down at a police roadblock,the driver would stop several metres away from the police and then dash to the officers before returning and driving off.
“It’s very rare to see a police officer coming to check the vehicle. Once the driver has paid some money, he drives off.
“Then when that vehicle is eventually involved in an accident, you hear the police saying it had no relevant papers,” he said.
Several others insisted that it was strange that police officers manning roadblocks hardly impounded vehicles with defects as long as the drivers paid fines.
They argued that the police were empowered by the law to impound defective vehicles and if they had been doing that, then most of the kombis would be off the roads until the owners attended to the defects.
Following the Chitungwiza accident, police spokesperson Chief Superintendent Paul Nyathi said: “Meanwhile, police have noted with concern that the driver of the kombi had no defensive driving certificate, five years driving experience and medical certificate to allow him to be driving a public service vehicle.
“The commuter omnibus had no route authority and passenger insurance to allow it to be carrying passengers on the road.”
‘Offending drivers should be jailed’
Just last week, kombi driver Emmanuel Korovedzi (39) was jailed to four months for negligent driving after causing an accident that injured many people as he tried to flee from the police.
Magistrate Tendai Mahwe observed the increase in cases of kombi accidents was a cause for concern and there was need for the imposition of deterrent sentences.
The matter came hard on the heels of another one in which magistrate Douglas Chikwekwe jailed Lloyd Kusotera (28) for an effective two years after he had been convicted of culpable homicide for running over a four–year –old toddler in a bid to escape the police.
Chikwekwe also observed that cases of kombis running over passengers while fleeing from the police were on the increase and such reckless driving posed a danger to innocent citizens.
“Cases of this nature are on the increase. There is erratic driving by commuter omnibus drivers and people have been injured, especially in the CBD, where a dear life was lost prematurely,” he said. “It is luck for one to go to work and come back home alive. Surely something must be done. Surely sanity must prevail on our roads.”
The court noted that Kusotera did not have medical endorsement, picked up passengers at an undesignated spot and drove against a one–way street. In a nutshell, he was not supposed to be on the road.
Observers noted that there was need for this trend to continue and hopefully, offending kombi drivers would eventually shape up.
According to the Road Motor Transportation Act chapter 13:10 public service vehicle drivers should be above the age of 25, should have retest certificates, defensive driving and medical fitness. The commuter omnibus should have an operator’s licence, certificate of fitness, route authority, passenger insurance and current licence disc.
Road Traffic Management Corporation spokesperson Ashref Ishmael said: “There are a number of ills afflicting public passenger transport in South Africa, most common which are vehicle fitness and dangerous driving, which includes overloading, excessive speeds, barrier line and red light infringements. Poor driver training and fraudulently obtained licences add to the problems.”
The problem of public service vehicles is also rife in South Africa, with authorities pinning it down to the state of the vehicles and the incompetence of the drivers.
Under different pieces of legislation in South Africa such as the National Road Traffic Act (1996) and the Criminal Procedure Act (1997) a driver who causes accident can be charged under serious traffic offenses including murder, culpable homicide, drunk driving and reckless or negligent driving.
In June last year, Zimbabwe indicated there were plans to gradually phase out kombis and replace them with much bigger buses amid reports that 6 000 of the 10 000 kombis plying Harare routes were operating illegally and over 100 drivers were on the police wanted list. Nothing, however, has been done to date.