‘Without your head you’re nothing’: Helmets and road safety in Uganda.

By Bex Thompson (Staff Writer)

Having lived in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city for 9 months, I have had ample time to test the many different modes of available transportation. With never-ending traffic jams, poorly maintained roads, and rarely enforced laws, getting from A to B sometimes presents major challenges. This is exacerbated by the fact that road accidents are the second highest major cause of death in Uganda, after malaria[1]. Focusing on motorbike taxis, commonly referred to as boda bodas, this article will illustrate that in order for bodas to be as efficient as possible, the responsibility to ensure road safety must shift beyond individual drivers.

In Kampala bodas are highly convenient because they fit through the smallest of spaces. Due to their efficiency, some local sources estimate that there are currently over 300,000 bodas running throughout the city[2]. Given the sheer amount of bodas, you can always see drivers clogging intersections and blocking sidewalks.

When I first arrived in Kampala, I, like most other visitors, was sternly warned to never ride a boda. Obviously racing around while other vehicles blindly change lanes and overtake on corners does not seem like the smartest move. However, after hour upon hour of sitting in hot, slow minibuses watching boda after boda whizz past, I decided that sometimes exceptions could be made. I did some research, found a trusted driver and have never looked back.

Boda bodas in evening rush hour- downtown Kampala

Boda bodas in evening rush hour- downtown Kampala

While no transport is completely safe, motorbikes do come with an added risk. Per a 2010 study from Mulago (Uganda’s main referral hospital), boda boda accidents cause almost 75% of traffic related trauma[3]. While I undertook fieldwork in Mulago, the amount of boda-related patients I saw waiting in A&E made me consider if my current research on neglected zoonotic diseases had any worth in comparison. Accordingly, this year (2015) it was reported that nearly half of Mulago’s annual budget has been devoted solely to boda accidents.

Despite such statistics, most passengers in Kampala do not wear helmets while using bodas. This was corroborated by the Injury Control Centre Uganda (ICCU) in their 2011 study, which highlighted that 30.5% of riders used helmets in comparison to a mere 0.8% of passengers[4]. This is extremely low in comparison to neighboring Rwanda, where road safety has taken priority and all drivers and passengers are legally required to wear a helmet.

While I carry my helmet everywhere in Kampala, most people do not consider it a trendy accessory. This is despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) claims that wearing a helmet reduces fatal accidents by 40% and serious injury by 70%[5]. As a friend recalled after his recent boda accident, ‘I am so thankful I was wearing a helmet, I broke my leg but my passenger had his head split open like a watermelon’.

In 2011, the WHO implemented Action for Road Safety with a global vision to prevent 50 million injuries and 5 million deaths by 2020. However, some argue that this has made road safety a public health issue alone. Road accidents are increasingly being dubbed an ‘epidemic on wheels’, with seat belts and helmets compared to vaccines[6].

My boda drive Jasper and I wearing our helmets!

My boda drive Jasper and I wearing our helmets!

Yet, these slogans shift the responsibility of road safety onto the individual and fail to consider larger structural issues that force road users to take risks. While helmets are an individual choice, they are expensive. Moreover, most boda drivers are young men who rent their motorbikes in order to generate a small income. Thus, buying a second or even first helmet is not a priority.

In order to relieve individual financial restraints concerning road safety, the initiative SafeBoda was launched in 2014. A free mobile phone app, SafeBoda allows passengers to connect with experienced boda drivers[7]. Using funds from social venture communities, Safeboda teaches road safety, motorbike maintenance and first aid. On top of this, each driver is equipped with a road-worthy, WHO approved helmet. Drivers even provide hairnets for hygiene, a common complaint amongst female passengers. Dressed in florescent orange, I have noted the number of SafeBoda drivers increasing almost daily. Consequently, I hope the positive momentum gained by SafeBoda will become the catalyst for improving road safety amongst all boda drivers.

As the fastest and most efficient means of travelling around Kampala, bodas are fantastic. However, there must be many more initiatives and regulations to guarantee that both drivers and users are as safe as possible. Making helmets free through initiatives such as SafeBoda is one of many steps necessary to ensure Uganda has safer users and roads. As my boda driver Jasper aptly claimed, ‘everyone needs to put their helmet on, without your head you’re nothing!’

[1] Mwesigye (2011) [online] http://www.observer.ug/component/content/article?id=15002:feature-hit-kill-and-run-death-trap-on-uganda-roads

[2] Ssenkaaba, (2013) [Online] http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/643639-boda-bodas-a-deathtrap-at-your-beckon.html

[3] Kigera et al. (2010) ‘The Impact of Bodaboda Motor Crashes on the Budget for Clinical Services at Mulago Hospital, Kampala’. East and Central African Journal of Surgery, 15:57-61

[4] Maseruka, (2011) Head injuries stretch Mulago Hospital, [Online] http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/13/756495

[5] Ibid

[6] Lamont, M (2010) ‘An epidemic on wheels? Road safety, public health and injury politics in Africa’, Anthropology Today, 26: 3-5.

[7] http://www.safeboda.com