Personally, I think that the changes implemented over the past 10 years in terms of roads and transport is great. The switch has been good for importing newer, more appropriate vehicles and driving on the left is more familiar to the majority of Samoans living overseas.
As an importer of motorcycles, the very slow shift in acceptance of this mode of transport is also pleasing to me, both as a motorcycle enthusiast and as a businessman.
However as a road user with 35 years of driving and riding experience, I am convinced that the Samoan driving standards and general on road behaviour is getting progressively worse.
As someone who makes the Savaii to Apia trip about 45 times a year on a motorcycle, I regularly traverse what I think is the most dangerous road in Samoa, the stretch from the Wharf at Mulifanua to the new dual carriageway at Vaitele.
I’d estimate that on average I would have a near death experience about twice a month, where had I not taken evasive action resulting in leaving the road for the refuge of gravel or grass, I would have been taken out by oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road, usually overtaking in a manner that is dangerous and outright unacceptable.
This is not only happening on that notorious stretch of road, but also in Apia and on Savaii, where an incident last week prompted me to look at the road death statistics and subsequently write this piece.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report in 2015 covering road safety, based largely on figures obtained from 2013. This makes interesting reading and even more interesting when comparing different countries in the region. In a nutshell Samoa is the worst performing country in our region when it comes to road deaths. You are 23 times more likely to die in a car in Samoa compared to Australia.
Now with only 30 reported deaths compared to Australia’s 1,252, Samoa seems much safer, but when you look at the numbers per population, Samoa is three times that of Australia. On that basis, the Cooks are a place to avoid with nearly five times the road deaths compared to Australia.
This is no doubt because of the very high proportion of motorcycles, on which are frankly more likely to be killed than if you were having the same accident in a car, but also there are more than 6 times the vehicles per population compared to Samoa.
A more relevant way to look at the statistics is the number of deaths relative to the number of vehicles and in this scenario, Samoa is a massive 23.5 times that of Australia. Relative to the number of vehicles on the road, Samoa’s death toll should be one or two per year if we were to match Australia.
Compared to neighbours like the Cooks, Fiji and Tonga, Samoa is still two to four times worse. For a country aiming to be one of the leaders in the region, this situation is totally unacceptable.
Now one or two deaths is a tragedy in itself, it nevertheless has to be a target that the Authorities have to aim for.
Certainly, there are massive differences between the driving environments in Australia and Samoa, where speeds are much higher in Australia, distances covered in Australia are much greater, many Australian country roads are not much better than those in Samoa and particularly in urban environments, the congestion on Australian roads is far greater than peak hour Apia. With all these factors against Australian road safety, why are they light years ahead of Samoa?
In a nutshell, it all boils down to driver training, vehicle safety standards, road safety education, policing and a community attitude that does not tolerate additional deaths on Australian roads. Back in 1980, when I first drove legally, there were 3,403 deaths on Australian roads, more than 22 per 1000 population and more than 43 per 1000 vehicles. Not as bad as Samoa, but about the same as the Cooks and about three times what Australia experiences today. What happened over the past 37 years that has seen such a reduction?
In the early days, community outrage drove the authorities to crack down in every area they could. Holiday long weekends usually had the weekend road toll as the top news story, with reports of multi car accidents on country roads wiping out families, mainly due to fatigue, speed and substandard vehicle and road safety.
Over time, vehicles became safer, with the addition of compulsory seatbelts for all passengers, improved vehicle dynamics with better suspension, steering and braking systems and more recently the addition of active safety systems such as ABS, Stability systems and Airbags. In addition, roads also became safer, with the addition of more effective barriers, lane dividers, lower speed limits where necessary and the building of more dual carriageway freeways to bypass black spots.
Licensing of drivers became tougher, with learners now having to complete up to 120 hours of driving in all types of weather, road and light conditions before they can do the test for their license. In my day it was have your learners for three months and hire a professional instructor for a couple of lessons before you turn up on your 18th birthday to do the test. Car registration also became more stringent, with annual safety checks required before a registration can be renewed.
Public road safety campaigns were a big thing from the late 70’s through to at least the 90’s in Australia, with constant TV commercials drumming in the road safety messages and the infamous grim reaper commercials about the road toll, as well as school education programs to make sure the next generation of drivers thought more positively of road safety. It works, as I see the difference between the behaviour of my parents, myself and my son when it comes to things like seatbelts.
Now that’s great for a rich country like Australia to do this, but what about poor little Samoa? Community outrage costs nothing and when there are 23.5 times more people dying on Samoan roads than there is in Australia, ignoring the issue is a shameful public reaction to this genocide.
I know that the LTA are putting many programs in place to improve vehicle safety and standards, address licensing shortcomings and driver training initiatives, as well as improving roads, they cannot do this alone and certainly not with the budgets allocated to such things. As the Decade closes on the Ministry of Works ” Samoa National Action Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011 – 2020”, many of the initiatives needed to addressed seem to have been identified at least six or seven years ago, however with only three years left on this plan, how much has really been achieved?
Apart from the major road upgrade between town and Vaitele, there have only been a few small improvements made to Samoa’s roads and most of them were probably driven by maintenance requirements rather than safety planning.
Licensing of drivers in Samoa is still far behind what I experienced in Australia in 1980, with no compulsory driver training, learner period and extensive testing of driving skills before being issued a license. About the only progress I can see is the shiny plastic licenses with your photo and signature, compared to the paper license I was issued with when I hit the road.
Since the switch, the standard of cars on Samoan roads has certainly improved, but there are still plenty of mobile death traps out there, many of them rusted out, missing windows, faulty brakes, worn out suspension and tyres that should have been replace many miles ago.
I believe that safety tests for older cars are to be introduced sometime soon, but with more than 12,000 cards registered in 2013 and probably closer to double that now, how can existing facilities and staff handle an extra 1,000 inspections per month?
Based on population split between the islands, which means an additional 240 inspections per month in Savaii, or 48 per working day.
Assuming that a proper inspection will take between 20 and 30 minutes, you would need to build a facility with 5 or 6 bays to accommodate this constant flow and there will need to be at least a staff of 8 to 10 to perform these inspections prior to registration being renewed. If there were 20% failures, requiring re-inspection after issues are rectified, add another 20% to the workload, facilities and staff required to perform this. If the number of cars in Samoa today is over 20,000, increase these numbers by another 75%.
If such initiative had the desired effect of forcing un-roadworthy vehicles off the road until they had their issues fixed, who is actually going to fix them? As any vehicle owner can attest, there is a severe shortage of competent, qualified motor engineers in Samoa and sourcing parts can be a nightmare too.
I am unaware of any school based road safety education taking place and if it is, the message is not sinking in, as many pedestrians continue to walk on the same side of the road as traffic approaching unseen from behind them, while many cyclists persist in riding into traffic rather than with it and then you have the great numbers that walk or run across a road without looking. Now it is much worse in Savaii, where I live, it is indicative of a lack of basic road safety education.
The Samoan Police don’t seem to enforce the laws that really matter in preventing road tragedy. If they did, they would target those that overtake on blind sections of road, cross solid lines to cut corners, speed through villages, weave all over the road, stop in the middle of the road and transport people unrestrained in the back of trucks. In fact the police first would stop doing all of the above themselves if they were to lead by example and enforce the laws that will make Samoa a better and safer place to live and visit.
There will always be push back against tightening licensing, registration, application of laws and anything that may make a Samoans life more expensive, but consider the cost to a family of a road death caused by a faulty, poor road conditions or lack of driver skills and experience. It is not only the cost of a funeral, which in Samoa is more than significant when you take into account all the relatives travelling for the tragic event, but more so the loss of a valued individual and their future contribution to family and community.
At some stage, the resilience of Samoans against the hardships of life here that I admire, has to give way to community outrage and demand that the government makes this a priority ahead of building new government offices and other white elephants. The future of Samoa is in the hands of the generations to come and if we are to keep losing them unnecessarily on the roads of Samoa, everyone will suffer.