News that eleven passengers died when the bus they were travelling in collided with a lorry ought to stir the traffic police department and the National Transport and Safety Authority to enforce the Highway Code more robustly if the country is serious about ending the carnage of our roads.
Now that it has been established that errant human behaviour — speeding, reckless and drunk driving, distracted driving, mainly from the use of mobile phones — there ought to be more targeted vigilance and sanctions against offenders.
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As it is, Kenyan highways have become like the Wild West of olden America, where every man and woman were a law unto themselves. Tailgating, overlapping, lack of basic driving courtesy and blatant failure to observe simple public health and safety rules have become a pandemic. As a result, road users routinely get held up in needless gridlocks for hours on end, sometimes overnight, because of notoriety that can be cured through more robust enforcement of the law and punishment of offenders.
Not so long ago, it was mandatory for all public transport vehicles to enforce the rule requiring passengers to use safety belts. Research has shown how important these are in reducing fatalities and serious injuries. Inspection officers should be given measurable targets to ensure motor vehicle owners comply with this basic rule. Failure to do so amounts to signing the death warrants for commuters. There is no point in campaigning to abolish the death penalty in law when boarding a public service vehicle is tantamount to every commuter signing one. It is an oxymoron.
Kenya is afflicted by a system failure and the collapse of basic rule of law principles. Police officers simply enforce rules when they are set to profit directly. For instance, whereas drunk drivers in urban areas like Nairobi are routinely arrested, none is ever taken to court. Instead, kangaroo courts have mushroomed in practically every police station, where traffic officers are given targets to raise cash informally for themselves and their superiors. There can never be road safety worth speaking about under such a dysfunctional system.
Today, 11 families in Kisumu are mourning the death of their loved ones. And, routinely, the victims and survivors of road traffic crashes are breadwinners, meaning that whenever a Kenyan dies in a crash, a family’s hopes, dreams and livelihood are buried with them.
The long-term consequences of such largely preventable deaths are too dire to contemplate. Children drop out of school, affecting their life-long chances at self-advancement and making nonsense of government efforts to increase enrollment, not to mention transition rates. That is partly why Kenya is saddled with an enormous bursaries crisis. Many of the people who ought to be paying fees for these children have either died or been incapacitated by traffic crashes, some of which could have been prevented or mitigated.
According to the World Bank, 67 per cent of the people injured in road crashes in Kenya are in the economically active age group of 15 to 64 years. Every 100,000 Kenyans who are injured in such crashes lose 636 life years between them. That means their aggregated productivity amounts to 636 lost years of productivity.
Tomorrow, more families will join this vicious cycle, but until it is quantified and laid bare in terms that policymakers and citizens alike can understand, the total disregard for the Highway Code and the poor enforcement that abets it will continue because it has become second nature.
According to the World Health Organisation’s Global Status Report on Road Safety, 3,000 and 13,000 Kenyans die in road traffic crashes every year. Authorities only focus on the lower number because it numbs them and citizens from the grim reality that our roads are the third largest killer of adults in Kenya.
Government and World Health Organisation data indicates that childhood life expectancy in Kenya has increased by 12.2 per cent in recent years. But this gain is wiped out partly because of the toll road crashes take on adults who are otherwise healthy. And 80 per cent of the causes of traffic crashes — many cannot be categorised as accidents — arise from irresponsible human behaviour that essentially goes unpunished.
Traffic fines are a major government revenue driver in countries like the US and the UK. The state of Ohio, with a population of about 12 million, leads the US in speeding tickets, with about 15 percent of the state’s drivers being cited for going over the limit. That means, out of every ten drivers there, about two have been arrested or fined or both. That number is even higher in States like Georgia.
In London alone, drivers were slapped with 7.6 million fines. London has about nine million people. The city raised £400 million in fines last year alone. That is about Sh82 billion, given that the exchange rate is Sh205 to the pound. Yet London has fewer and more disciplined drivers compared to Kenya. London has about two million cars, and Kenya has about 2.5 million. Data from 2017 indicates that Kenya collected about Sh1.5 billion from traffic fines. About 3,500 road collisions were recorded in London in 2022, resulting in about 100 deaths or thereabouts. According to data from the 2023 Economic Survey, 4,690 deaths were reported on Kenyan roads in 2022 as compared to 4,579 in 2021, presenting an increase of 111 fatalities or a jump of 2.4 percent. Kenya, as a rule, only accounts for deaths recorded at the scene of crashes.
According to the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility, road injury deaths are severely underreported in most sub-Saharan countries.
“Our estimates are often six times those of official government statistics,” the report says.
This data shows that more robust enforcement of traffic rules directly impacts the number of accidents, the resulting fatalities and injuries and the revenues raised by governments in corruption-free enforcement. The question then arises: why is this not happening?