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How fatalistic beliefs influence risky driving in Ghana. And what needs to be done

Road accidents in Ghana should be considered a public health concern. Transaid/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC

Road traffic crashes claim an average of five lives every day in Ghana. The country reported a road traffic death rate of 24.9 per 100,000 people in 2016 – above the global rate of 18.2 and only slightly below the World Health Organisation (WHO) African regional fatality rate of 26.6 for the same period.

The crashes have been estimated to cost about 1.6% of Ghana’s nominal GDP annually and have hindered efforts to reduce poverty. This is because money meant for poverty alleviation and development projects is redirected into post-crash care and management as well as repair of destroyed public property such as traffic lights, roadway lighting, and guard rails.

WHO data shows that there were no reductions in the number of road deaths in low-income countries, including Ghana, between 2013 and 2016. And other national reports suggest Ghana’s road crash problem is on the rise.

I carried out a study to understand the role of human factors in accidents in Ghana, and to look at what could be done to reduce them. As a psychologist I was interested in the role of fatalistic beliefs – the view that one’s fate is controlled by unseen forces and that chance and luck are crucial for human survival – in risky driving among licensed commercial minibus drivers in Ghana.

My study found that fatalistic beliefs are widespread among drivers and that drivers who hold these beliefs have much riskier driving attitudes and behaviour than drivers with less fatalistic beliefs.

Overall, the study concluded that fatalistic beliefs have a considerable influence on road safety attitudes, which in turn affect driving behaviour. This information could be useful in designing more effective crash prevention strategies.

Commuting in Ghana

Road transport is the major mode of travel in Ghana, accounting for about 70% of transportation. Local air travel remains unaffordable. Inter-city train travel is non-existent. Inner-city bus travel is poorly managed and thus remains unattractive to most commuters. Unofficially, there are more private vehicles than commercial vehicles. The last official count was in 2012.

There is no official state database on the causes of road crashes, but research suggests they result mostly from risky driver behaviour and poor road environments.

The government has made attempts to improve road infrastructure, but few resources have been devoted to road safety education and research.

Ghana’s drivers are mostly young adults. Due to high unemployment and lack of other opportunities, many young Ghanaians take to occupational driving. They drive commercial passenger-ferrying minibuses locally known as ‘trotro’.

Several studies have shown that on average it takes a Ghanaian commercial driver two and a half years from their first trip to be involved in a road crash.

Traffic fatalism in Ghana

Traffic fatalism describes the belief that road traffic crashes are predestined and inevitable. In other words, traffic fatalism reflects a belief in the role of fate and destiny in road safety. Strongly fatalistic individuals believe that their fate is controlled by unseen forces and that chance and luck are crucial for human survival. Such individuals believe that personal willpower will do very little to change the course of events thought to be predetermined.

Fatalistic beliefs are known to hinder individuals from taking personal action to promote their health. Research has shown that not only do individuals who hold fatalistic beliefs engage in more unsafe driving behaviour, but they also underestimate dangerous driving situations.

To explore traffic fatalism in Ghana, I obtained data from 519 licensed drivers aged 18 to 73 years, recruited from the Greater Accra and Eastern Regions of Ghana. Respondents reported driving experience of one to 38 years. They completed a previously validated measure, the fatalism subscale of the Multidimensional Fatalism Measure, together with other measures of risky driving attitudes and behaviour.

The measure is conceptualised to reflect beliefs about whether or not road crashes can be prevented or changed through personal action. Sample items on the fatalism measure include “There is no sense in driving too carefully; if you will not get accidents, you will not”, “If something bad is going to happen to me as a driver, it will happen no matter what I do”, “If road accidents happen, it is because they were meant to happen”, and “Life is very unpredictable, and there is little one can do to prevent road accidents”.

Respondents indicated their agreement or disagreement with the statements. Higher scores indicated greater fatalistic beliefs about road crashes. Respondent scores were then used to predict risky driving behaviour.

I found that in Ghana, road traffic fatalism seems more widespread than previously thought. For example, in a recent road crash involving a popular musician, Ebony Reigns, fatalistic beliefs dominated the discussions surrounding the tragic event to the exclusion of risky driver behaviour.

In a previous qualitative study, I found that some Ghanaian drivers believe that vehicles thought to have been purchased from proceeds of witchcraft or killing are destined to be involved in a road crash as a ‘pay back’ for wrongdoing on the part of the owners. Consequently, aside from vehicle maintenance, some vehicle owners are thought to be remotely responsible for road crashes involving their drivers.

Way forward

Fatalistic beliefs occur within a cultural context. Thus, the study’s findings are useful for road safety education in Ghana. Ghana’s National Road Safety Commission could design road safety campaigns among drivers to target the belief that road crashes are controlled, in part, by fate and destiny. This would help to deconstruct the notion that personal actions by drivers could do little to prevent road crashes.

This campaign may take the form of persuasive messages via traditional media and social media aimed at drivers. This would target dominant cultural and religious beliefs, norms, and value systems from which fatalistic beliefs are thought to arise. Authorities might also consider religious congregations as venues for road safety education.

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