One of the most dreaded moments in a driver’s day is the traffic congestion – or “rush” hour – between 6am and 9:30 am and between 4 pm and 8:30 pm.
This period is when almost everyone is rushing to work in the morning, or heading home in the evening. But now the adverse effects of the awful traffic situation has transcended the loss of human hours and productivity for the entire country and now threatens their health.
A recent report released by the Harvard School of Public Health indicated that air pollution from traffic congestion contributes to more than 2,200 premature deaths annually in the United States and costs the health system a huge amount of money. In most of the world’s growing economies, such as Ghana, many of the vehicles are older – and the damage to people’s health from pollution may be much worse than in advanced economies.
Scientists have for a long time believed emissions from vehicles are harmful, but an Environmental Health study called “Evaluation of the Public Health Impacts of Traffic Congestion: A Health Risk Assessment,” is thought to be the first to quantify the harmful effects.
The damage linked to congestion has been declining a bit over the last decade, but is set to get even worse starting in 2030.
“What the study says is when you are designing and evaluating (transportation) policies, you should take into account the pollution impacts, because they do matter,” one of the researchers noted.
The problem has been compounded for Africa and Ghana for that matter considering the share numbers of over-aged vehicles that are imported into this part of the world. Several hundred “expired” cars ply our roads every day, increasing the health risks associated with the emissions from these cars. Most of the buses used for public transport emit thick black fumes that are certainly detrimental to the health of other road users.
Most heavy duty trucks also fall within the category of vehicles that emit these fumes, and the case is worse for persons who are stuck in traffic beside or behind these trucks or buses. Anytime they rev the engines, bellows of thick smoke engulf the area and, the longer it stays, the faster the life of people around it tick away.
Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed diesel engine fumes are hazardous to humans and can cause cancer. There are millions of people that can be affected worldwide by grim health risks that are known of from breathing diesel gas fumes.
Preparing for this story, The Weekend Globe visited the areas that have gained notoriety for being traffic prone, such as Mallam Junction, Tetteh Quashie, Graphic Road, Kwame Nkrumah Circle, Accra Central, Osu Oxford Street, amd Spintex Road, just to name a few.
There was a report in the Daily Graphic that quoted statistics made available by the Metropolitan Roads Department (MRD) of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), which indicates that the Winneba Road (Mallam-Kasoa Highway) registers about 4,000 vehicles every hour during peak periods.
Similarly, the Achimota (Nsawam) road also records 4,100 vehicles every hour during peak hours of the morning and evening, followed by Adenta with 3,500 vehicles per hour. The Spintex Road, which is also considered congested, however, registers a vehicle population of 1,500 per hour followed closely by the High Street, located in the central business district of Accra, with 600 vehicles per hour.
We spoke to a number of driver and passengers alike and it was quite obvious that the majority of them, although suspecting that the smoke is not good to be inhaled, had no idea of any health hazards associated to it.
"I have been driving for the past 12 years and I'm most often in traffic heading to Accra,” said Nana Kweku, a taxi driver. “I have never been told that the smoke from cars is harmful."
The passenger in Nana’s car said he has seen at least two people throw-up during a rush hour after inhaling smoke from a trotro that had parked right beside their taxi. “The first time it was a woman,” he said. “When the trotro stopped beside, the smoke from it was quite thick, so we all started murmuring, due to the smoke. Just before we could say jack, the woman threw up. Our luck was that she was sitting beside the window. She would have soiled us all.”
“Just recently another one happened, this time it was a school boy, he also vomited when an articulated truck moving very slowly in front of our car let out a huge blow of smoke,” the driver added. “The boy said he was asthmatic, though, but I think it was because of the smoke.”
Jacob Tettey, an artist who was in a trotro right around the time we were interviewing drivers and passengers around the Mallam junction, said: “I have been in this traffic for the past 35 minutes and this has gone on for the more than four years that I’ve lived at Kasoa. I’ve never considered the health implications of the smoke from the cars….”
However, he raised another aspect of the health risks associated with sitting for long hours and said: “I’ve had some severe back aches as a result of the long hours of sitting. That the only problem I have thought about.”
His position about the long hours of sitting in traffic is also very true because it is said that ‘human beings were not made to be sitting for long hours, hence the many joints would develop problems.’
On the Spintex Road, around 6:15 in the morning, one passenger said: “I actually left home at 5am, and look at me. Sweating profusely and I’m not even half way through the traffic. This is a serious indictment on the authorities and they must sit up. Aaahhh.”
Regina, who had two little children on her lap, was looking quite frustrated and, even before she was approached for her views on the traffic situation, yelled at a taxi driver who was trying to cross the trotro she was sitting in.
“Where does he (taxi driver) think he is going? Does he think we are here to sleep on the road? I wake up at 4am everyday to prepare these children for school and still we get stuck in the traffic. Look at the children, they‘re even sleeping before we get to school and, instead of that taxi driver staying in his lane, he’s crossing us as if we are going nowhere! ”
Other passengers also expressed their frustration to The Weekend Globe,
indicating that they thought the construction of the new overpass at the Mallam Junction would ease the traffic drastically.
Ohene, a trotro driver, said: “When they finished the overpass, it was really fast, we hardly got caught in the traffic. But the problem has returned. It looks as if the number of cars in the country increased a few months after the completion of the overpass.”
There is truth in the fact that the number of cars in the country has increased, because recent statistics released by the Driver Vehicle and Licensing Authority (DVLA) indicate that a total of 174, 234 vehicles were registered in 2012. This is about 22.86 percent more that the total number registered in 2011.
It is estimated that by the middle of 2014, the total number of vehicles in Ghana will hit one million. Unfortunately the institutions in the country that are supposed to do due diligence before these vehicles hit our roads are not – and that is a cause for concern.
There have been proposals, however, to deal with the traffic issue in its entirety, and one of them is that “Traffic control should focus more on human behavior than vehicle count. One of the cheapest and easiest ways out of this traffic congestion is to have an efficient public transport system which is reliable and affordable.”
The traffic problem and its health implications are bigger than we seem to know, and the earlier we initiate a concerted effort is dealing with it, or coming up with workable, long term solutions to the problem, the better for the country and for future generations.
By: Martin Asiedu Dartey/The Weekend Globe