Intelligent. Kenyan.

Published: 2 weeks ago

Kenya’s Killer Roads

In December 2017, over 330 Kenyans lost their lives in road accidents while traveling for the holidays. Over 40 people died in road accidents within 24 hours at Sachang’wan and Bungoma. 36 people lost their lives at Migaa on the 31st of December 2017. For purposes of comparison, 148 people died in the Garissa University terror attack.

The NTSA’s (National Transport and Safety Authority) response was to abruptly ban all night travel by Public Service Vehicles (PSVs). This left several hundred passengers who intended to travel on the night of 31st December stranded, since the ban took immediate effect. “In order to review the current measures in place to improve road safety, the authority in consultation with other relevant government agencies hereby suspends night travel for all long distance public service vehicles from December 31. All travel must be scheduled to take place between 6 am and 7 pm.” As a result, PSVs are being driven even more dangerously in an attempt to reach their destinations before 7 pm. Unlicensed, unregulated private motorists have begun offering commuter services between key towns at high fares.

Driving and being driven in Kenya is a high stakes activity. Kenyan roads are hazardous, and each day we make it home okay is a happy day. Because we recognize this, we established the NTSA five years ago, in October 2012, with the vision of having a sustainable and safe road transport system with zero crashes. Their goal is to facilitate the provision of safe, reliable, efficient road transport services.

In Kenya, over 3,000 people, mostly pedestrians, die in road accidents each year. Globally, 1.24 million people die per year on roads, but 90% of these deaths occur in low and middle income countries even though they have fewer motorized vehicles. The age group that is most affected is the 15 – 29 age group worldwide, with road accidents being their leading cause of death. These accidents cost us about 5.6% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year. An agency like NTSA’s existence comes from a place of necessity, however, their interventions seem not to work.

Road deaths in 2015 increased to 3,057 up from 2,907 in 2014. This is an increase of 5.15%. These are people’s lives we’re talking about. Kenya’s goal was to reduce fatalities from road accidents by 50% between 2009 and 2014, yet they have not reduced. The NTSA has yet to provide comparative figures for 2016 and 2017.

Even more worrisome is that instead of measuring their performance in terms of lives saved, they cite how much they collect in fines instead, as if that is their mandate. They impose arbitrary speed limits on highways, which are meant to facilitate the high speed flow of traffic, and hide their speed cameras in bushes so as to arrest errant motorists, as opposed to announcing them with signs to remind the motorist to slow down.

I get it – speeding is the main cause of most road accidents we have, followed by drink-driving, not wearing a seatbelt, not wearing a helmet while on a bike, not using child restraints, distracted driving and so on. As a result, the interventions that follow should be – we must reduce the speeds that drivers drive at, make sure they don’t drink and drive, penalize people for not wearing seatbelts, helmets, using child restraints, using their phones will driving. And so on. Yet we’ve done these things, and they are clearly not working, given that road accident fatalities are not reducing year by year. So what gives?

Enforcement. Do we do these things consistently? Effectively? Efficiently? Let’s take highway speeding, for example. 3,057 people died in 2015. How many of them died on highways? On Thika Road? 70. Mombasa Road? 60. Waiyaki Way? 50. Jogoo Road? 30. That’s a total of 210 people – 6.87%. Yet where are we most terrorized by NTSA about speed? Highways.

The World Health Organization has an annual global status report on road safety. The most recent one is from 2015. Road safety is included under two sustainable development goals. We want to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages: by 2020, we should halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents. As it stands, that would mean our target is to get them down to 620,000. We also want to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable: by 2030, we should provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

Almost half of the world’s road deaths are those of pedestrians, pedal cyclists and motorcyclists. The average for Africa is 43%. In Kenya, however, they account for 70%. In 2015, 268 drivers and 642 passengers died in road accidents, making up 30%. The rest were as follows: 104 pedal cyclists, 553 motorcyclists and 1340 pedestrians. Only 30% of those who die are inside cars.

It becomes apparent that to reduce fatalities from road accidents, we need to ensure that pedestrians, people on bicycles and motorcyclists are safer on the roads. We need to strike a balance between ease of mobility and safety. In the “Safe Systems” approach, used successfully in countries like Sweden, the speed limit on a section of a road takes into account safety, mobility and environmental considerations, as well as the impact of the speed on the quality of life for people living along the road.

Where motorized traffic mixes with pedestrians and cyclists, the speed limit must be under 30 km/h. This is due to the vulnerability of these road users at increasing speed: an adult pedestrian has less than a 20% chance of dying if struck by a car at less than 50 km/h but almost a 60% risk of dying if hit at 80 km/h. On roads where front impacts with other road users are possible (such as on non-divided rural roads, and two way roads) a “safe speed” will be lower than on highways, where head on collisions crashes are unlikely.

We need to ensure that both the drivers and riders on boda bodas and personal use bikes wear helmets. Many people say that they don’t because of hygiene, so perhaps we need to mass introduce helmet liners and other products that help prevent the transmission of skin diseases through these helmets. As we do this, then, we can also strictly enforce the wearing of helmets as a must by all people on bikes. The quality of these helmets should also be guaranteed, and low quality helmets should not be allowed into the country. There are some that crack as soon as someone falls, regardless of the magnitude of impact. These should not be allowed.

When it comes to drink driving, strict enforcement of the blood alcohol concentration limit/alcoblow should be there. The guys at these stops should be well trained and know the importance of not taking bribes – you take a bribe now, in 20 minutes the drunk driver kills someone, or multiple people. We also know that young and new drivers are a greater risk on the roads, especially if drink driving. They may then enforce lower blood alcohol concentration limits for them, to ensure that they are present on the road. This can then be graduated based on age group and driving experience. The effects of drink driving by commercial drivers (such as truck drivers) and PSVs is even more severe, because their vehicles tend to kill multiple people when involved in fatal crashes.

This means that strict enforcement of blood alcohol concentration limits should be enforced on them, especially on high risk roads, and at high risk times (such as between 5 pm and 10 pm, and during the entire night). We also need to tell Kenyans to stop warning others about alcoblow checks. If you can show them that they are actively contributing to the deaths of others, they may stop this behaviour.

Then there are seatbelts. Wearing seatbelts saves lives, yet it is no longer strictly enforced. We need to go back to doing this, and not just front seat passengers. All passengers should have their seatbelts on. For children, regular seatbelts don’t work as well – they need special restraints. Whether it’s a well fastened car seat, booster seat – have your child in a special restraint for him or her. It increases their chances of surviving a car accident by up to 90%. They should also travel in the back seats of private vehicles as it is much safer.

We need a law that applies an age, weight or height restriction on children sitting in the front seat, and a national child restraint law based on age, height or weight. We also need to make sure child restraints are affordable and accessible. We could have community based education and distribution schemes, maternity hospital loan schemes, voucher programmes and so on. We also need to look into how to enforce this in PSVs – which many people use with their children when moving from place to place. How can we make matatus and buses safer for children?

Then comes distracted driving, caused mostly by mobile phone use. This distraction comes in the form of auditory distraction, visual distraction, cognitive distraction and manual distraction. If one is on a call, for example, one is manually distracted due to holding the phone, and while listening to the call, one may miss audio cues on the road. Texting is even worse – it takes your eyes off the road, your attention is focused on the phone, and you are holding the phone so you are manually distracted. Even when using an earpiece, one is probably still distracted cognitively, which is the most dangerous form of distraction while driving. Drivers talking on a phone are four times more likely to be involved in a crash than those who aren’t. While this number applies to four wheeled vehicles, it doesn’t mean motorcyclists are any safer. Fighting distracted driving should be a key focus of the NTSA.

Vehicles and roads themselves must also be safer. Cars should be crash worthy, and have electronic stability control. This aims to prevent skidding and loss of control in cases of over-steering or understeering, and is effective at preventing different types of crashes (single car crashes, head-on and rollover crashes, and crashes involving multiple vehicles), reducing both serious and fatal injuries. Political will to enforce these interventions also needs to exist. We need to embark upon radically fixing our police force.

We should also have vehicles on roads that consider pedestrian safety. Softer bumpers, better bonnet area clearance and removal of unnecessarily rigid structures are required to reduce the severity of a pedestrian impact with a car. This means that most of the old cars on our roads would not make the cut. Roads themselves need to be safer. Planning decisions are usually made without sufficient attention to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and people on motorbikes – for example, cycle paths and footpaths are frequently not part of our road network. Neither are bridges.

We should optimize the movement of people and goods with road safety in mind. This optimization needs to take into account the mix and safety of all road users. We should also promote non-motorized forms of transport, such as walking and cycling. A good step in this direction is changing the perception that walking and cycling are for poor people. We can do this by separating these different kinds of road use, eliminating conflicts between high-speed and vulnerable road users. This is simple – have pedestrian walk ways, have separate cycle lanes. Look at Kileleshwa and Kilimani, for example.

We also need advocacy efforts to keep road safety high on the government and public agenda. We can do this through public awareness campaigns to increase understanding and support for enforcement measures, and to sustain a high perception of enforcement. This may even incentivize compliance. Until we start doing these things seriously, the NTSA will remain the butt of many people’s jokes, and rightly so.

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