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Seeking the truth in the age of disinformation

Tuesday April 23 2019

Arusha 3.0

A poster advertising a car lovers event that turned tragic in Namanga, Tanzania, on April 21, 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY 

BARAZA JM
By BARAZA JM
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Road accidents are terrible, but one of the least addressed concerns is communication. It is extremely difficult to explain events we did not witness first-hand, and whose details remain sketchy through a combination of trans-provider network impediments (roaming cellular networks), the urge to “contain the situation” and the unwillingness of the affected to recount exactly what went down.

NO RACE

By now most of us should be aware of the incident that transpired just south of the border last Sunday. There was a two-vehicle accident that claimed some young lives in Tanzania and, as is typical in this age of unregulated social media, the grapevine went ablaze.

I don’t want to spread alternative facts, but what I gathered from people at the scene is this: There are two groups of youths, one from Kenya and one from Tanzania, that meet every now and then for a bit of camaraderie, more so during the holidays. What is not clear is exactly what these two groups were.

But another clear fact is that there was no race, sanctioned or unsanctioned. The two groups had linked up at Ol Donyo Sambu, midway between Arusha and Namanga on the Tanzanian side of the border, for a bush barbecue, which was well under way when the unimaginable happened.

So what exactly happened?

There was a Kenyan registered vehicle at the head of a small convoy that had just arrived, and the driver decided to turn right and go off the road to park his vehicle. Word is he did not indicate his intention and this might have contributed to what happened next. Unbeknown to him, there was a Tanzanian vehicle bearing down on him from behind at considerable speed. The vehicle reached the small convoy and switched lanes to overtake, only to encounter the Kenyan driver in the course of turning right. There was a collision, which propelled both vehicles into the crowd that had gathered for the barbecue. The outcome was a complete disaster. There were fatalities.

HOT-BLOODED

There are conflicting reports, particularly on WhatsApp. There are “screenshots” and “forwards” and all manner of “evidence” dug from deep within obscure and ancient social media profiles trying to highlight the incident as a race gone awry, but most of this is garbage stemming from emotionally overreacting to what is, for all intents and purposes, another road accident.

But that is not the point; whatever happened, happened; and trying to prove one’s investigative skills by sharing blurry videos of events that took place half a decade ago is not helping anybody. This is a road safety issue and it will be treated as such by the authorities on both sides of the border and of course by yours truly.

Whatever the victims were accused of (street racing) and whatever they claim they were doing (having a barbecue) are two distinct activities, but they do have several overlapping points. These events are invariably attended by hot-blooded young adults, and more often than not, they show up in fancy, high-powered vehicles. That is just how things are.

The recreation part of that formula is what needs addressing. Whether or not there was a race is a moot point by now, but we can learn one thing from this, and that is responsibility.

If there was a race, we need to be responsible enough to know the consequences and not hold them. There are more than enough examples showing what happens when things go wrong. But it wasn’t a race. And this is now where I address the organisers of the event.

PROTOCOL

Control your crowd. One cannot control individual behaviour but one can set rules and regulations in place and have their co-organisers assist in enforcing them. Marshalling is one of these methods, as well as briefings on dos and don’ts.

The two cars collided. Why? An absence of protocol. One cannot have one car trying to park while another is charging forward at full power.

Since I went mainstream in the motoring world, I have directed and organised several events involving the same type of crowd but the combined efforts of all present have mitigated disaster all through. It is all about regulation and control.

Both our charity and motorsports events have very strict regulations with punitive measures as disincentive to ensure adherence to these regulations, and we have largely avoided trouble.

The organisers of Sunday’s get-together have a very simple lesson to learn here: anything involving a crowd and a public road calls for some very close supervision. Involve the authorities even, if you have to. We do, in all our events. It helps a lot in keeping things in check. As for the participants, it’s also fairly simple: don't be foolish. Don’t try to prove anything to anyone. You can’t be doing high speeds through crowded areas with slow-moving traffic.

I learnt of Sunday’s events and this was written with a heavy heart, but as a personality in the print media, I have a responsibility as well, a responsibility whose weight was heightened when, in August last year, I was selected by the WHO to take part in the Global Road Safety Leadership course at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. I learnt a lot in the US, so I can’t just sit back and watch things unfurl right before my eyes.

***

Over and above getting facts wrong, another issue came to the fore as events unfolded in Tanzania. I’ve contacts with EMT services and Red Cross and their initial reaction was, “Who is helping at the scene”? It's hard to give an answer when information is getting to you piecemeal, 99 per cent of it unverified, half of it face-saving PR, and the other half contradictory and sourced from third parties who know even less than you do but are trying to look useful.

There are first responders, who play key roles in saving lives in case of a disaster. They can’t do their job properly if they’re fed inaccurate data. My road safety schooling ingrained in me two things: One, that road accidents will always be unavoidable provided we have cars and we have roads, and two, that the focus today is on minimising and/or eliminating road traffic injuries, which sometimes lead to deaths.

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