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Boda-boda motorcycles are the fastest mode of transportation in Uganda. They are not only swift, but also reliable in times of emergencies - when vehicles get stuck in a jam or can't access certain areas, these motorcycles slither their way through with ease. However, they are also a leading cause of road accidents. So are boda-boda worth the risk?
Despite their ease at snaking through difficult areas in Uganda, boda-boda use has become the leading cause of death and injuries on most roads. It has led the national referral hospital to set up a special ward to handle victims of motorbike-related accidents.
Most boda-boda accidents stem from narrow roads getting congested with traffic. It is common in Uganda to see buses, taxis, trailers, lorries, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians competing for roads' thin spaces.
Doctor Robert Wongoda, a general surgeon and clinical head in the accident and emergency unit at the Mulago National Referral Hospital, says motorbikes are the leading cause of injuries on the roads and have now surpassed motor vehicle accidents.
Head and limb injuries are among the most common. “Head injuries are the commonest cause of death among motorbike riders and passengers,” he observes.
Riders also risk being assaulted by criminals, especially at night. Thugs usually pose as passengers, and when the motorcycle reaches a dark corner, riders are hit with hammers and iron bars, cracking their skulls. Thugs then take off with the motorbike and the day’s earnings. Dr. Wangoda says assault injuries have also contributed to the death of many riders.
“These injuries are preventable and would be less severe if riders wore crush helmets,” Dr. Wangoda says.
A study conducted by the Injury Control Center Uganda (ICCU) at the national referral hospital shows a decline in the use of crush helmets. In 2011, 30.5 per cent of riders used helmets, while 0.8 per cent of helmet use was recorded among passengers.
A previous study done by the ICCU and the World Health Organization in 2006 registered 42.6 per cent helmet use by riders and 0.26 per cent among passengers.
According to Dr. Wangoda, two patients die on average every week at Mulago hospital as a result of boda-boda accidents. Between 10 and 20 victims of boda-boda accidents are received at Mulago hospital on a daily basis and 20 per cent of the victims are left disabled.
The 2011 annual traffic report showed that a total of 1,762 serious accidents involving motorbikes occurred in the capital city during that year. Lawrence Niwabiine, the traffic commander of the Kampala Metropolitan Police, noted that 155 passengers perished in motorcycle-related accidents.
“It is very rare to hear that a taxi in Kampala city has overturned and killed passengers," he told RFI. "The deaths we register in Kampala are related to boda-boda cycling and their behavior.”
Pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users in Kampala, followed by commercial motorbike riders.
“The boda-boda is the most unsafe means of transport in Kampala, and I would appeal to most road users to desist from using them in the city, especially at night,” Niwabiine warns.
“Criminals hide in the boda-boda industry and commit violent crimes in our society," said Niwabiine. "And this is because the industry is not streamlined.”
He says around 90 per cent of riders are incompetent. “These riders did not get any formal training, and they do not comprehend road safety tips whatsoever,” he explains.
Niwabiine added that Uganda must develop a process to register all riders and their motorcycles, in order for law enforcement officials to follow them regularly.
With the high rate of unemployment, this fast-growing means of transport employs a bulk of youth in Uganda.
About 80 per cent of young people between 20 to 30 years old are earning a living by picking up and dropping off passengers.
However, it is still the most unsafe mode of transportation.
Urban areas have the highest concentration of commercial motorcycles, and the largest number of injuries reported. Riders often flout traffic laws, running traffic lights at city road junctions and driving on the wrong side.
Their driving is characteristically reckless, as they squeeze their way in between vehicles during traffic jams, putting the lives of their passengers at risk.
Passengers are more often injured than riders, and women are more prone to motorbike accidents than men. More females are injured as boda-boda passengers than in road traffic accidents.
“Ladies sit on the boda-boda in the wrong way; these legs hanging on the side," says Marble Tomusange, the executive director of the Injury Control Center Uganda. "The moment there is any impact on the boda-boda, you fall off. And if you are in between cars, they’ll crush your legs. That’s why many passengers get fractures.”
Some parents hire boda-boda riders to pick up and drop off their children at school in the morning, putting the lives of children at risk.
“It is dangerous to put a child on a boda-boda and it’s the worst abuse of his or her rights,” says Tomusange.
Health experts warn that boda-boda riders may suffer eyesight problems because of the wind and dust that blows directly into the eyes. Many ride without helmets or glasses, and have seen a deterioration in their eyesight.
Experts also warn that long amounts of time spent on motorbikes exposes a rider’s reproductive organs to danger.
“When these guys sit on the boda-boda, they affect their reproductive organs," Tomusange noted. "They sit on those things for a very long time in the same position, in the heat, in the cold, in all different conditions, and they are affecting their families.”
Riders also risk developing respiratory diseases because they do not wear jackets most the time.
While boda-boda motorcycles may be a fast and efficient mode of transportation for Uganda's most hard to reach areas, health and safety experts continue to warn of the dangers for riders and passengers.
With more regulations in place, the boda-boda could thrive. But as things stand now, they are still risky business.
By Gloria Nakiyimba
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