By Chrispus Mayora
I have lately been reading about causes of deaths in Uganda, and surprisingly, it may no longer be HIV/AIDS or some disease. Road traffic accidents are now one of the leading causes of death in Uganda and many low income countries.
I then asked myself: with disturbing pictures of deaths and injuries from traffic crashes, often splashed allover television, social, and print media, and sometimes physically witnessed along roads, why do car drivers (or even boda-boda riders), and other road users continue to disobey traffic rules?
This is a question that keeps puzzling many. The answer may partly come from behavioral economics theory. From this theory, Individual behavior is essentially built around incentives (the environment according to sociologists).
This theory avers that human behavior is partly shaped by the environment under which they live or work. The environment creates a framework of incentives that will influence the way individuals live, behave or even survive.
This concept of ‘incentives’ can largely explain driving behavior as well. From my recent interaction with a taxi driver in Kampala, I learnt that drivers sign a contract to deliver around UGX 150,000 daily to the taxi owner. The driver and conductor must also eat lunch and take to their families some food at the end of the day, and then fuel.
We can estimate up to UGX 250,000 for a taxi to meet all expenditure expectations of those who run it. Let us consider a route like Kampala-Bwaise which costs UGX 1,500 an individual, with maximum 16 passengers in a taxi.
This is UGX 24,000 per single route. You need up to about 10 routes a day to break-even. This estimate should now make you understand why taxi drivers find it hard to stay in the ‘jam line’, because they won’t meet their daily bargains.
I am sure you now understand the incentive here for taxi drivers to flout rules, over speed, etc. Similar explanations suffice for even private cars – either rushing to attend a meeting or beating time to be somewhere.
Incentives stretch to mechanisms for punishing and apprehending bad behavior. In most high-income countries such as the USA, Australia and Japan, driving permits have ‘points’, but also roads, highways, and streets have cameras everywhere. Essentially, you don’t require a traffic officer to stand on the roadside to extract compliance.
Once the camera records you breaking the law, you are summoned, and if found guilty, points are deducted off your permit (depending on gravity of the offence). At some point, you will be left with minimal points on your permit that you are banned from driving for a period of time or even forever. You can clearly see here, that the incentive for committing crime is extremely low, or rather the cost of crime is high enough to be a deterrent.
The traffic penalty and enforcement system in Uganda has evolved in the last few years. I recall, whenever one was involved in a traffic offence, the driving permit would be confiscated, and was only reclaimed with the proof of payment.
Let alone the cost of the fine, the processes of paying were very annoying-starting from getting an assessment, then the long lines in the bank, and then returning to the police station where your permit was confiscated – sometimes in a distant up-country station.
It was simply ‘expensive’ to commit a traffic crime. This system changed. We were told it escalated corruption. Nowadays, once you commit a traffic offence, you are given an Express penalty receipt, and allowed to pay it within 28 days.
You however, retain your driving permit. In the absence of a nationwide electronic tracking system, many drivers do not pay those penalties. In fact, if you do not want to waste a lot of time on argument, you could as well ask for the ‘receipt’ and off you drive.
The system is no longer even interesting for the enforcers themselves, because essentially they are left with limited authority to stamp over errand drivers. It may look worthy for a law enforcement officer to pick a UGX 10,000 from an errant driver, and let them off, instead of insisting on rules that may not bring food home.
A traffic police officer earns about UGX 450,000 per month. If on average they have 10 drivers in a day giving him UGX 10,000 each, which would translate into UGX 100,000 a day. Clearly, it would take about one week to generate money worth his monthly salary. In Uganda, professionalism is not necessarily a paying attribute, and so sticking to rules may not be worth it.
The point here is that it is not very costly to commit a traffic offence in Uganda, compared to countries that take traffic law enforcement more seriously. If you were a driver rushing for a grand mission that will earn you 50 Million, paying a few Uganda shillings is still a better deal than staying within the speed limit.
The probability of losing a job too, on the part of a traffic officer found pocketing a few shillings is low, because it highly unlikely that they may be sacked. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the economics of traffic crime. It does not cost a lot to be a traffic offender.
In fact the incentives are pretty good, and the deterrents are very low. However, campaigns such as “Kawunyemu” for dealing with drink-driving are essential in raising the cost of crime because they come with costly public embarrassment.
As a country, we will only address the issue of crashes if we make traffic crime so expensive that road users would rather keep within the law, even in the absence of law enforcement mortals.
The writer is a lecturer and health economist at Makerere University School of Public Health