Rwanda at the crossroads: To drive on the left, or the right ?

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Posted  Sunday, November 6   2011 at  18:34

Rwanda has renewed a clampdown on foreign registered vehicles even as it mulls whether to maintain traffic on the right or to shift to the left in conformity with other East African Community partner states (with the exception of Burundi).

While definitive figures were not readily available, some 500 cars with foreign registration plates from Uganda, Kenya and Burundi risk being  impounded according to the Rwanda Revenue Authority, as they do not comply with the country’s traffic regulations. 

Vehicles from other EAC countries, with the exception of Burundi, are right hand drives, because vehicles in these countries drive on the left.

Revenue and police authorities say the clampdown is in line with a 2005 presidential decree outlawing importation of right hand drive vehicles because they are incompatible with the traffic system and as such pose safety risks.

There have been noted accidents on cross-border highways involving mainly “foreign” drivers. Rwandan authorities have attributed this to the difficulties these drivers find in navigating Rwandan roads and its traffic flow.  

According to the decree, anyone already owning a right hand drive vehicle had a period not exceeding four years to change to a left hand drive. Temporary exception is made only for vehicles in transit and those used by diplomats who, if they reside in the country, must apply for special number plates if they intend to use their cars regularly.

While enforcement of the decree has been, at best, low-key and mostly precautionary since the grace period effectively ended in 2010, the renewed interest is partly economic.

It owes to an increasing number of Rwandans who, it has been discovered, beat the system by importing these cars and passing themselves off as foreigners in order to evade taxes.

“[What] we have discovered recently is that actually some Rwandans have opted to go for right hand drive vehicles under the umbrella of foreigners visiting us,” said Richard Tusabe, the deputy Commissioner General in charge of Customs Services.

The rise in preference for Right hand drive cars, however, is because of their cost relative to left hand drives.

Most of the former are imported from Japan and South Africa compared with the latter that mainly come from the US and Europe.

Economies of scale and distance favour the former.

Moreover, Japan and South Africa offer cheaper reconditioned cars, which might not be as environmentally friendly.

On the other hand, Rwanda has just crafted a robust climate change policy that essentially locks out old vehicles because of their excessive emissions.

A study the Ministry of Infrastructure conducted in 2009 on what traffic system was preferable lent credence to this cost aspect.

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