How to Drive Safely in Africa

While traffic safety professionals in North America and Western Europe often lament the state of their roads, most African countries can only dream of reaching a fraction of the safety standards of their global peers.

Case in point: The death rate in Western sub-Saharan Africa averages 27 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to just 9 in Europe. Africa also accounts for one-quarter of the global 1.2 million annual road crash victims, even though, astonishingly, the continent contains barely 2 percent of the world’s vehicle fleet.

Why such disparities? If you live in Africa, what can you do to protect yourself and others? And get home safely to see another day?

A Confluence of the Worst of Everything

As the planet’s second-largest continent, with 54 countries and a diverse population of 1.4 billion, Africa defies generalization. Its inhabitants are also among the youngest, with a median age of just 19 years. But more of these young people are unlikely to see old age than anywhere else in the world, whether they’re walking to school, riding as passengers, or driving.

Why? Lawlessness and chaos often pervade the driving environment. Streets, teeming with vehicles and people jostling for space and position, can be an utter free-for-all. It’s culturally understood that larger vehicles have the right of way, and if you’re a pedestrian crossing the street, good luck—you’ll need it.

Speeding factors into more than 90 percent of crashes in some countries, like Nigeria. As elsewhere in the world, smartphone distraction is an enormous problem, but, combined with the other problems mentioned above, the risk of using these devices is even higher.

Many vehicles—even commercial ones—are old, in poor mechanical shape, and unregulated, making them prone to sudden breakdowns. Road infrastructure is chronically underfunded, causing dangerous driving conditions, and driver training is marginal at best, with many people ignorant of even basic traffic rules or signage.

When crashes do occur, getting timely medical care can be impossible, given the remoteness of many areas, underdeveloped roads, insufficient ambulances and trauma hospitals, and immense congestion. Even worse, bystanders, eager to help, often rush to the scene to extricate the injured without knowing how to do it properly, worsening spinal injuries and increasing the odds of dying.

It’s easy to blame these atrocious conditions and forget that most road crashes are completely preventable, not inevitable. It’s up to us—the human factor—to stop them, especially by controlling speed and distraction from handheld electronic devices.

Tips for Driving More Safely

  • If you’re in a vehicle, always wear your seatbelt, even in the backseat. If you’re on a motorbike, wear your helmet. Give yourself this simple chance to stay alive.

  • A frequent cause of fatal wrecks is risky overtaking by large vehicles like buses and commercial trucks, even on sharp bends. Don’t attempt to pass them, but if you must, honk your horn to warn them of your presence.

  • If possible, give big vehicles plenty of room; you never know when worn tires might burst, brakes might fail, or drivers might swerve to a halt in the middle of the road to suddenly unload passengers or cargo.

  • Avoid driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, and medications. Watch for impaired drivers and pedestrians, too!

  • Expect the surprise left turn, or worse yet, the unexpected U-turn, where drivers go past the desired turn and then hang a swift U without warning into oncoming traffic.

  • Resist the urge to use your smartphone while driving, however difficult. This distraction just adds exponentially to the already enormous risks of the road.

  • Slow down and stay vigilant around schools, where children are likely to be walking and dashing across the road.

  • Keep your headlights on all the time, even during the day; it helps others see you.

  • Try to avoid driving at night. Streets are often poorly lit, hiding huge potholes, pedestrians, and broken-down vehicles. Drivers often have their high beams on, or no lights at all. Animals are also more active at night, and they inconveniently tend not to wear reflectors.

  • Don’t speed. Speeding robs you of the time needed to watch for hazards and respond safely to the unexpected.

  • Signal your intentions, but don’t expect others to do so, or others to be alert to yours.

  • Watch for people of all ages, sizes, and physical abilities at the most unexpected moments.

  • Don’t take all the constant honking personally. Remember that it isn’t always negative; it’s a way for others to signal their presence, to warn you of danger, and even to thank you.

  • Try to avoid traveling during peak congestion or on the most crowded routes. If you must, allow yourself extra time so you aren’t tempted to speed or take unnecessary risks.

  • To combat congestion, security forces escorting high-ranking government officials and other important people often ride against the flow of traffic, which in turn causes crashes. It’s also not unusual for drivers who miss their exits to back up the wrong way down a one-way street. Stay alert for any sudden oncoming traffic.

  • Drivers in Africa often travel in the middle of the roadway. If you want to overtake them, honk and flash your lights to warn of your presence first.

  • Most of all, stay vigilant. Practice patience. Never assume you know what others will do. And expect anything to happen at any moment—because it always does.

Tips for General Road Safety


  • Keep your vehicle locked at all times, even when you’re in it, especially in cities and at night. Never leave valuables visible.

  • Download Google Maps and Maps Me offline before traveling; smartphone reception can be poor in valleys and rural areas. Navigation apps are also inaccurate in some areas; plan on up to 30 percent more travel time to compensate.

  • If you’re crossing country borders, be aware of which side of the road you should be on. Drivers in 14 African countries drive on the left side.

  • Superstition and religion sometimes lead people to believe that they are protected from harm. Don’t be one of them—thousands of road victims and their families have discovered the hard way.

  • If possible, park in a secured area. In some cities, self-appointed parking attendants will, for a small tip, park your car for you on the street and look after your vehicle.

  • Learn basic CPR techniques or teach someone how to perform them. Doing so could save a life when you least expect it—even yours.

  • Remember that paved roads can turn into slippery dirt ones very suddenly.

  • Tropical rainstorms and sandstorms can reduce visibility to nearly zero with little warning and can cause you to lose traction on the road surface. Turn on your hazard flashers, pull off the roadway, and wait out the worst of the storm. Remember, if you can’t see others, they probably can’t see you either.

  • Keep your vehicle in good mechanical condition. Regularly check that your brakes, lights, and turn signals are working properly; that your tires are properly inflated and have adequate tread; that you have sufficient oil, coolant, and wiper, brake, and transmission fluids; that your hoses, belts, and windshield wipers are in good condition; and that you’re not overloading your vehicle with people or cargo.

  • Emergency services are limited or nonexistent in many areas. Always carry spare tires, fuel, basic tools, a first-aid kit, some food, water, cash, and a charged mobile phone. And be prepared to wait a long time for assistance.

  • Resist the urge to pick up hitchhikers or aid people in distress; it may be a ruse to rob you.

  • Be extremely cautious when driving around domesticated livestock. If you hit and kill a cow, for instance, you will be expected to pay compensation to the owner—and perhaps twice, as the owner may claim it was pregnant! If you refuse, villagers may inflict violence on you, so it pays not to hit the animal in the first place.

If an Emergency Happens


  • If you’re a bystander, unless there is a fire burning or the vehicle is sinking in water, resist the urge to pull out a badly injured driver or passenger in case they have spinal injuries; instead, call for emergency help.

  • If you know CPR or other lifesaving techniques, administer them to anyone in need until professional medical help arrives.

  • If you are knocked or hit from behind in suspicious circumstances, don't get out of your vehicle, in case it’s a carjacking or robbery attempt.

  • If a collision occurs between a motorcycle (or scooter) and a car, the vehicle driver is almost always considered at fault. A hostile mob can quickly form, intent on injuring or lynching the driver, so stay in your vehicle until the police arrive. If you feel your life is in danger, try to escape and head to the nearest police station or law enforcement personnel.

  • At roadblocks and checkpoints, stay courteous and responsive to the person of authority. At night, turn on your vehicle’s interior light. Show your documents only through closed windows. Try to verify that the person you’re dealing with is an official and ask for their identity card. If they cannot provide it, do not pay any “fines” (bribes); ask to be taken to the local police station instead.


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