Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes in Uganda

Posted on May 19, 2015 12:03 am

I’ve done it Contador Harrison. I have an Uganda shilling 200,000 fine to prove it. And I’m not alone. Those are not my words but J. Ntege’s a Ugandan cabbie.Despite the fact that using mobile phones in cars has been illegal in Uganda for many years, the numbers flouting the law are on the rise. In 2014, thousands of people were fined and received demerit points for using a phone inside a motor vehicle and so far this year that number is expected to rise. And that’s just the ones who were caught by highly disciplined Uganda Traffic Police Officers though I must admit a few bad apples makes the otherwise hardworking force look bad in the eyes of the majority of Ugandans.While in Uganda, take a look at your fellow motorists on any given day, in any areas like Kawempe, Ntinda, Entebbe Road between Katwe and Kajjansi or city business district area and you’ll note that phones are part of drivers multi tasking menu. Doesn’t matter how short the trip, whether your driving from Freedom City to the shopping mall in Lubowa, you’re guaranteed to see someone on their phone.

They come in different shapes, sizes and ages from the old, young, professionals, tradies, and they can be of any ethnic diversity in largely cosmopolitan Kampala and Entebbe areas.It’s easy enough to spot the texters between Najjanakumbi and Zana. Their cars slow down and speed up erratically as they send and receive texts and their heads bob up and down.The texters are generally younger with most of them in late 20s and early 30s. They’re on the sort of plans that offer free texts from MTN and Airtel but the price of calls is prohibitive. So they text. Surreptitiously. It’s only the jerky motion of the car and the bobbing heads that give them away.Those who choose to talk on their phones are obvious. One hand on the wheel, the other with a phone pressed to their ear, talking animatedly as they negotiate city traffic. They are of the “it’s just a quick conversation. I won’t get caught. Besides, it’s only 200,000($70 at as of May 18th 2015 Exchange rate to the dollar) school of thought. And then there are those putting the phone on loudspeaker, placing it somewhere on your person and having shouty conversations with the poor person at the other end.

That too is illegal, as Ntege’s friend discovered when he got an infringement notice during Easter Weekend. The mad thing is that most of Ugandans can afford a hands-free kit. but few bother to use them. And most of them can install it in the car because they are cheaply available in Kiseka and Kikubo markets. Contador Harrison I’m ashamed to say I had two hands-free kits on my desk in my office when I was picked up for finishing a conversation with my fiancee as I drove out of a car park at Lugogo shopping mall.And yet, like Ntege, a lot of Ugandans seem reluctant to use the technology that would make them safer on the roads.The law forbidding people to use mobile phones in their vehicles is not just a petty, revenue-gathering sort of a law for Uganda Police Force, one of the most highly motivated forces in East and Central African region. There is a real link between mobile phone use and crashes.

In 2014, driver inattention was responsible for more than 10 per cent of fatal crashes and injury crashes, according to Uganda Traffic Police figures and although not all distractions are of the mobile phone variety, a significant number are. A man who works closely with a friend rang me to say he is haunted that his mother died as a result of a crash in 2012 and that he had phoned her seconds before she crashed. Contador Harrison grew up in an age before mobile phones were ubiquitous and I simply cannot believe that societies like Uganda are able to function before the invention of the smart phone. But surely Ugandans can survive switching off their phones for a car trip and if they can’t, the technology exists to allow them to stay in contact with the world while we’re traveling from one point to the other.Police and motoring experts I spoke to in Entebbe told me that using mobile phones while driving is dangerous and Ugandans know that but the traffic office wished that penalties can reflect that. An Ugshs. 200,000 ($70) fine doesn’t indicate the seriousness of the offending. If he were asked, a $400 fine and on-the-spot confiscation of the phone would surely get Ugandans to change their ways.

Contador Harrison