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

Sunday November 6 2011

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.

Aside from the fact that 54 per cent of people surveyed favoured switching driving sides, the study noted how Right hand drives are 16-49 per cent cheaper than left hand drives.  

For example, the study showed that, without taxes and duties, a LHD car costs $7,337 on average while the RHD car cost $5,602, a difference of $1,735. A LHD pickup costs $13,279 while a RHD one costs $11,021. A LHD three-axle truck costs $59,638 while a RHD one costs $49,891.

Survey

Overall, the study said it is cheaper to own, easier to maintain and therefore cost effective to operate a right hand drive vehicle.

It’s such thinking that informed the Private Sector Foundation’s petition to government asking it to consider allowing importation of RHD vehicles into the country, and switching traffic flow to achieve uniformity in the Community, which in turn would smoothen vehicle circulation and subsequently improve trade.

Currently, for instance, there are fewer locally registered cargo trucks in Rwanda than importers require, forcing them to rely on foreign trucks.

The government, however, is yet to act on the ministry’s findings.

“That was a sample survey, not a study, because it did not give clear recommendations on the way forward for the decision makers. This is why we intend to carry out a comprehensive new study that will assess the benefits and the cost of shifting to driving on the left hand side of the road,” said Dominique Rurangirwa, a transport and road safety expert at the Ministry of Infrastructure.

The comprehensive study is intended to specifically evaluate the comparative economic, social and environmental implications of driving on either side so that the government adopts the most advantageous option. 

There has been speculation Rwanda will switch its traffic flow to achieve uniformity with the original EAC members ever since it joined in 2007. This, however, has remained simply that: speculation.

Even with these studies, the switch is highly unlikely to happen soon.

For one, it would be very expensive to overhaul the existing infrastructure.

Expense aside, Rwanda takes seriously a 1998 UN Resolution urging countries driving on the left to progressively shift to the right because across the world there is more traffic on the right hand than left. 

About 72 per cent of the world’s total road distance carries traffic on the right, and 28 per cent on the left, according to Wikipedia.
“We cannot make a decision based [only] on EAC because we also have to consider other sub-regional groups such as Comesa, SADC.

We also have to take into consideration the UN Resolution and in history there are more countries driving on right hand than the left,” said Rurangirwa, who also doubles as a legal advisor at the Ministry of Infrastructure.