Christmas 2006 was a special event in Rwanda. Just a decade after being ranked as one of the worst countries for road safety, Rwanda's police force watched over the country's first accident-free festive season, a time for reckless driving in many countries.
This transformation has been far from easy to achieve, however. A World Bank situation report, commissioned in 1996, concluded that one accident was taking place every two and a half hours on Rwanda's roads, almost all of which left people injured and 10% of which resulted in deaths.
Urban centres, such as the capital Kigali, saw frequent violent collisions, sometimes because drivers refused to respect others' right of way, according to Dominique Rurangirwa, who works on transport and road safety in Rwanda's Ministry of Infrastructure. Night-times were particularly hazardous "because of the excess speed resulting generally from alcohol consumption," he recalled. In rural areas, where roads are in a far worse condition than those in urban centres, drivers regularly went too fast to maintain control on the uneven carriageway surface.
Rurangirwa said the number of road deaths in Rwanda for a country of some nine million people was found by the World Bank to be among the world's highest in 1996.
But, according to Rurangirwa, the severity of the situation also presented an opportunity. "After the genocide which plunged Rwanda into mourning in 1994, the country knew that one method of rehabilitation was [improving] its road infrastructure, which was damaged during the genocide, leading to many road traffic deaths," he explained.
The 1996 World Bank report echoed this view that Rwanda's incentive for improving road safety was about moving the country forward from responding to a humanitarian crisis after the genocide to efforts focused on development, of which improving infrastructure and road safety were key parts. The desire for post-genocide rehabilitation and development were the major factors behind the big push on road safety.
After reviewing the World Bank situation report, the Rwandan government started a new road-safety programme, financed by the World Bank, and embarked on a complete revision of the country's laws on road conduct. Ministers re-examined the regulations governing the traffic police and the requirements for drivers, consulting widely among transport stakeholders, including unions and regular road users. "We also spoke to pedestrians, in particular the schoolboys and students, to make sure that we consulted at the level of communities," said Rurangirwa.
New regulations, which started to be strictly enforced after 2001, included mandatory wearing of seatbelts, speed limits, vehicle inspections to ensure standards of roadworthiness and limits on blood-alcohol concentrations. These legislative changes were followed up in 2003 by a public awareness campaign and a law introducing further penalties for lack of seatbelt use or failure to wear helmets on motorcycles.
Since 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been working with the Rwandan government to help raise community awareness of road safety, according to WHO Country Health Information Officer Jean Busco Gasherebuka. …