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This App Could Make Roads In Uganda Safer


Now to Uganda's capital of Kampala. Like many African cities, gridlock prevails on the streets. Mass transit is inadequate. So boda bodas, or motorcycle taxis, are indispensable. They're also dangerous. NPR's Eyder Peralta looks at a company trying to change that.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In any street in Kampala, you find bodas crisscrossing the streets.


PERALTA: They're like little worker ants that weave through traffic, carrying many times their weight - sometimes a big plushy couch, sometimes high-rises made from egg crates. Gloria Namaye likes them because they're fast.

GLORIA NAMAYE: They are faster than any vehicle around.

PERALTA: And she knows they're unsafe. One time she tried to ride one with three of her friends. The driver obliged, and they all tumbled from the motorbike. But Namaye's not mad. It wasn't the driver's mistake.

NAMAYE: My friend is mistake because she was so big. She was so big. She had big bums. Hey, you get it.

PERALTA: (Laughter)

Down the street, I find Daniel, a boda driver who would only give his first name to speak frankly. He tries to be safe, he says, but customers want speed. So in all honesty, he says, they're not safe.

DANIEL: It's not safe at all. Sometimes, like, mostly we are the worst.

PERALTA: But this is serious. A recent U.N. study found that Uganda has one of the worst road safety records in the world. Bodas are a big part of that. The government passed a law requiring helmets in 2004, but it has mostly been ignored. Alastair Sussock and Ricky Thomson saw a business opening. And they founded SafeBoda, an app that connects riders with trained drivers who also carry an extra helmet. Sussock...

ALASTAIR SUSSOCK: We have tried to show that there are economic returns to being organized and safe. And then once you align those incentives, it's not easy, but I think it's definitely a way that we can get people to change behavior.

PERALTA: The SafeBodas cost the same as a regular boda. They offer hairnets in addition to helmets, and they found that it multiplied the number of people willing to put on a helmet from 1 percent on the street to 30 percent. Still, SafeBoda has about 1 percent of the boda market. And Thomson, a former boda driver, says there is a huge hurdle to overcome.

RICKY THOMSON: People have got a different description of safety when it comes to boda bodas.

PERALTA: They believe safety means knowing your driver.

THOMSON: People actually prefer taking a SafeBoda and not actually wearing a helmet because they already know that this is a professionally trained boda driver. And I don't need to wear a helmet because I'm safe because you're trained.

PERALTA: Back on the street, I meet Naka Saideth. She takes bodas mostly in the morning when she's late and she needs to get somewhere fast. She just hails one. And most don't have helmets.

Does that bother you?

NAKA SAIDETH: OK. It's really important for safety.

PERALTA: But...?

SAIDETH: (Laughter) If you don't have, you're really in danger. But, however, you take risks.

PERALTA: Checking an app would take too long. Sometimes, she says, you have no choice but to take the risk. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kampala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.