FREETOWN— Sierra Leone is banning the import and use of right-hand drive vehicles, which officials say cause 70 percent of road accidents in a country where left-hand drive is the standard. While many people applaud the move, others worry what will happen to businesses that are used to right-hand vehicles.
Salieu Sesay has been a taxi driver for 15 years in Freetown. He currently uses a right-hand drive vehicle and is not happy about the ban that officially came into effect September 1.
He said that his boss, who owns his taxi and several others, only has right-hand drive vehicles. Sesay worries that his boss will not replace the vehicles and he will be out of a job.
Another taxi driver in Freetown, Frank Coker, starts up his car and gets ready for a working day. He also disagrees with the ban, even though his vehicle is left-hand drive. He said many taxi drivers are worried how will they get money to buy another car. "I would prefer to stop the importation of the right-hand vehicle rather than banning the ones that are already in the country," he stated.
Sierra Leone used right-hand drive vehicles when it was a British colony. But soon after independence in 1960, the country switched to left-hand driving as it is more common around the world.
Minister of Transportation and Aviation Leonard Balogun Koroma implemented the ban at the beginning of this month, but said it has actually been illegal to drive them for two years in Sierra Leone.
"The road traffic regulation act of 2011 states no vehicle that has its steering apparatus fitted on right-hand side of a vehicle shall be allowed to register or operate on the streets," he noted.
Koroma said drivers of right-hand cars have until September 1, 2014 to switch their cars over to left-hand driving through professional technicians.
He said the ban is part of Sierra Leone's efforts to comply with United Nations development goals and decade of action, which include improving road safety worldwide.
According to the United Nations, road accidents are serious health problem for young people worldwide. It is the number one cause of death for those aged 15 to 29 and the second biggest killer of men aged 30 to 40, after AIDS.
Sierra Leone Road Transport Authority public relations officer Abdul Karim Dumbuya says 26 percent of the cars in the country are right-hand drive and cause 70 percent of the accidents.
"If you are moving and you want to overtake along the highway, if you are driving a right hand vehicle, you will not see a vehicle coming from the back," he said. "Most times they [drivers] have to ask, please, look there if it is safe to overtake, most times they have to ask a passenger sitting on the left, and it is not safe."
He notes a recent accident in the town of Makeni, two hours north of Freetown, that killed 17 people and was caused by a right-hand drive truck.
It is because of accidents like that business owner Yazid Rashid is applauding the ban, even though he had to cancel a shipment of new right-hand drive cars coming in.
"I used to own fleets of vehicles which are right-hand drive. So I was thinking of doing it again, and then this ban took effect. So it affected me economically as I was saying, financially. But it is still OK. Saving lives should be more paramount than our own financial gains," he said. "I want to be selfless and follow the U.N. decade of action, because we need to travel on the road where everyone will be safe."
And that is the message Minister Koroma hopes all Sierra Leoneans will eventually get.