Unbelievable as it may seem, the capital city I live in, a city of about half a million people, has not had a single, working traffic signal. There was one signal at a major thoroughfare but it isn’t functional. As a matter of fact, the CountryReports website (www.countyreports.org) which provides travel information for people traveling internationally says:
“While in Burundi, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.”
“There are no functioning traffic signals in Bujumbura, and virtually nothing of the kind elsewhere in the country.”
One might wonder how people drive with no signals and if there are lots of accidents. How do drivers cross busy intersections? Who has the right-of-way? Good questions!
First, there are some round-a-bouts at three or four of the busiest intersections. Second, the police monitor the major intersections during peak traffic hours. Third, there are not that many cars on the road because most people don’t know how to drive or own a car. Lastly, there’s the “swarm method” for crossing intersections which is quite effective. This is where after waiting for some time to cross a busy intersection with heavy traffic, you begin to slowly easing out into the cross traffic (I usually start honking to warn approaching traffic). This generally works because a line of vehicles (cars, motos and bikes) advances together, much like a swarm of fish or bees, thus causing the oncoming traffic to let others pass. More aggressive drivers use this tactic advancing on their own but those of us with small vehicles like to go “swarm” style. There’s safety in numbers.
As to the question of right-of-way, that depends on several factors. It may be the size of your vehicle; bigger trucks and cars win over smaller cars and motos. Or it may be the particular street; the cross street that leads to the President’s residence gets priority over the larger boulevard at that intersection. There is no sign about this. You just learn it from others or nearly get in an accident until you know it and yield.
All this is to say that much to my chagrin, I can no longer say there are no signals in Bujumbura! I returned from nearly a month out of the country to find not one, but multiple signals functioning and more being installed. Improvement? I’m not so sure.
The advantage of no signals is that people general drive like water flows in a stream, they move in and out of traffic, around obstacles, without much problem. Generally, no one drives very fast and there are not that many cars. The problem with the signals is that people aren’t used to them or don’t know to stop for them and the signals are very short and not well timed. Thus I fear they will create more accidents and traffic jams. My experience so far is it takes a lot longer to drive around downtown. Such is the way of modernization. My only hope is that this modernization will include road maintenance so perhaps next we’ll see the large potholes being repaired.