Last Thursday, the country woke up to shocking news of the gruesome road accident in Narok that left 41 people dead, and many others sustaining permanent injuries.
The President himself gave his condolences, and the Cabinet Secretary in charge of Roads and Transport, Engineer Kamau, went to Narok to personally inspect the scene of the accident, and to console the survivors at the hospital. The same C.S later declared a ban on night travels by the long distance public buses as one of the solutions to the road carnages.
The government has in the past come up with different ways of curbing the road deaths; from introducing the alco-blow, use of speed guns on some highways, increasing the number of police checks on the roads, to media campaigns on road safety....
But when it is all said and done, we will all need to deal with the main problem: Carelessness on the roads.
A view on some of the major roads
During the just ended elections campaign period, I traveled quite a lot along the Major roads and below are some of the general trends that I saw with vehicles that were travelling to/from:
Central Kenya region;- Careless driving by personal car drivers and Miraa Pickups
Nyanza region;- Careless driving by PSV buses travelling along Mai Mahiu road, with the main culprits being buses from Kisii.
Coast region;- Careless driving by PSV buses& heavy trucks.
Mai Mahiu-Narok road
There were occasions when we would be moving by night from Kisumu at those not-so-interesting speeds of 140kmph/150kmph using some Prados (whose stability makes one feel like they are moving at 110/120kmph on a smaller car).. and then out of nowhere, a Nyamira express bus would swish past you and disappear in to the horizon, meaning that they could be doing anything between 160kmph and 170kmph! anyone who has ever used those long distance buses knows very well that there is usually a sense of lack of stability even at 80kmph, especially when overtaking, or passing over an uneven section of the road. I wouldn't refer to such driving as over-speeding,it is instead just speeding carelessly.
What is interesting is that some of my friends who use these buses are usually very happy about this carelessness. They will tell you that “Siku hizi kuenda Kisii ni 4 hours tu!” or “Siku hizi tunakulanga breakfast na familia asubuhi, sio kama kitambo.” Another friend of mine wondered why I would travel using the Easy Coach buses from kisumu to Nairobi, instead of using the very fast (meaning no speed govenor)and smaller Shuttles.
Highway to Mombasa
While this careless-speeding will make you cross your fingers while in a bus to Homa Bay, what will make you hold tightly onto your seat in buses travelling to Mombasa is how they overtake. In fact, when travelling to Mombasa by bus, I always prefer travelling at night when there are a few heavy trucks, hence less overtaking. You will find a bus that is travelling at 80kmph, trying to overtake a tanker that is moving at 70kmph, while there is an oncoming SUV possibly moving at 100kmph.
Now, me being the type that does not easily fall asleep while travelling, the only choice i am usually left with is stepping on some imaginary breaks whenever such ‘overtakings’ occur(which is quite often)
The other careless thing that these Mombasa bus drivers do is what I can call “communal overtaking.” This usually happens when there are say three slow trucks closely trailing each other, and about four buses behind them, then the driver in the leading bus sees the opportunity to overtake and goes for it, then the rest of the buses blindly follow suit. It is usually not so bad if you are in the first bus, but your hair will definitely stand if you are in the third or fourth bus.
Vehicles to central Kenya
When it comes to vehicles going to/from Central Kenya, it is not the PSV Matatus but some private car drivers and Miraa vehicles that will send you to an early grave.
These roads have very many private cars especially from Friday to Sunday, all of them in some hurry to go wherever. When driving to/from those sides, you will find yourself flashing your headlights many times, just to remind/warn an oncoming overtaking car that you are also on the road. In many occasions, you will be forced to slow down to avoid a head on collision. There are also situations where there are persons overtaking from opposite sides at the same time, again forcing you to slow down to avoid a bad accident, and also so that the fellow can just go where they want.
Some of the drivers on those roads seem to over-estimate the acceleration power of their fielders and Primeos.
There are also these old lorries ferrying food stuff, charcoal, timber etc. where just like the heavy trucks on the Mombasa highway, you’ll find them creating long queues of vehicles behind them, each moving in a zigzag motion, peeping to see whether they can shoot forward and overtake the slow moving lorry (especially headed to Nairobi) which is usually a difficult process given the number of vehicles on the opposite side. Some Macho drivers will nevertheless overtake, and dangerously force themselves in front of you to evade an oncoming vehicle.
Then there are the Miraa pickups. They are always brand new, well maintained Toyota Hiluxes, with a huge Miraa load at the back, and two spare tyres. The speed and recklessness of these pickups makes that of the Kisii buses look like some joke. They will overtake dangerously, and if there is an oncoming vehicle, then it will be up to that oncoming vehicle to get out of the road, or slow down completely so as to allow the Miraa Pickup time to overtake. The Miraa Pickups drivers are the ones who will actually flash their headlights at you, to warn you that they are overtaking, not the other way round. I hear that the drivers walk around with some huge “petty cash” so that when they hit you, they just give you the money to sort your repairs as they go on with their journey.
Even the police do not bother to stop them, they just won’t stop.
Interestingly, the public transport vehicles on these roads are much disciplined. Most of the vehicles move at maximum speed of 80kmph, and the few that have tampered with the speed governors rarely do over 100kmph. If it takes two and a half hours from Nairobi to Karatina, you will most likely take two and a half hours,or slightly more, not less. The drivers never seem to be in any hurry. The passengers are also very vigilant (especially the women) and they will complain and warn the driver to drive carefully whenever he makes any mistake (since the Matatus are smaller, it is easier to complain directly to the driver). They will also start complaining and verbally expressing their shock if another motorist drives dangerously. You will normally get into these Matatus and everybody sits quietly, minding their own. But if any motorist drives badly, or if they go past an accident scene, then everybody will begin talking to everyone, and they can sometimes stay on the topic of accidents/careless driving for over 30 minutes.
But Maybe the reason as to the why PSVs on these routes are more sober is because they used to be the complete opposite some years ago. When we were younger, my brother and I would always be on the lookout for Matatu accidents every time we traveled upcountry for the holidays. We would never miss two or three fatal ones. In fact, as Alfred Mutua once joked, back then, before commencing a journey, some street pastor would turn up just after all the passengers are fully seated, and make a prayer that believers refer to as “journey mercies” and get some small collections for his prayers.
Just as some people believe that if they pray they will arrive safely, others believe in other forms of superstition.
Just yesterday, I was seated in a 4W Matatu, and the topic of Narok accident came up. Everyone was agreeing that those accidents are not “normal”, and it is the owners of those buses who are “giving sacrifices to the devil” so as to increase their wealth. It was alleged that the politicians also are sacrificing their people after winning the elections, as a sign of gratitude to the devil. Statements like “the season for offering sacrifices has arrived” were repeated. Apparently, the season begins in August, peaking and ending in December. All my counter-arguments fell onto deaf ears.
The problem with such superstition is that the drivers will continue to be reckless, and the passengers will just pray that God saves them from being sacrificed.
There is also the philosophy that “kama siku yako imefika, hata undeshe polepole aje utakufa tu.”
There was a time when my good friend Booker Ngesa complained that a Matatu which we were in was being driven badly and instead of the driver listening and driving carefully, he stopped the vehicle in the middle of nowhere and insisted that we get off the Matatu since we had brought “Swara”(bad omen) into the Matatu by complaining. The other passengers supported the Matatu crew through agreeing that we were bringing bad omen and others through their silence. Of course, we had to calm down (though a fist fight did later occur between the Matatu crew members and ourselves immediately we arrived where we were going…)
Sleeping,Madharau and stray dogs
Then there are some long distance drivers who sleep on the wheel. These drivers claim that they know the road so well, that they can actually close their eyes intermittently along some stretches. There is a time we were going to Kisumu on a Friday, not knowing that it is difficult to get buses to Kisumu on Fridays. We found all buses booked, and we were advised to wait for the buses that travel from Mombasa to Kisumu and chance on getting some space. Just as they said, one of the buses arrived but it only had two spaces left, yet we were four of us. We were then told that two would get their seats, and the remaining two would lie on a mattress that is reserved for the Makanga near the driver, only if we assured the bus crew that these two wouldn't sleep, and that they would do the makanga’s job, which is to “pigisha dereva mastori ndio asilale!”
Then there are other drivers who assume that motorcycles and bicycles do not have the right to use the road, and they will just hoot at them, zoom close to them in high speed, or just knock them off and drive away. (I think that before people get their driver’s license, people should first be made to ride a bicycle along one of the major highways, and maybe the experience will help them follow the law and respect cyclists once they get to drive their vehicles.)
There are also some dog (and occasionally donkey) owners who let their animals lose near the highways. Motorists will either hit them and continue with their journey; hit them and lose control therefore an accident; or they try to evade knocking these animals down, and instead they themselves end up dead in some ditch.
- Regulation of long distance buses/Matatus-The idea of having speed governors on long distance buses should be thoroughly followed. There should be a limit on the number of trips a driver can make in a day, and also a limit on the number of trips a bus can make in 24 hours (if the minimum time that a bus moving at 80kmph can take from point A to point B is 10 hours, then the bus can make a maximum of two trips only). Self regulation should be encouraged, though there should be government inspectors who follow up on these matters. If these two limits are broken, then it is the bus owners who should be held responsible.
- Have surveillance cameras where possible(like they do in Sudan), and mobile police (I heard that they will now be riding in Subarus) replacing the useless road blocks.
- Have proper lighting and signage on our roads. The government should also care to paint the roads so that they can be clear at night. The marks should include road reflectors on the yellow line.
- Introduce a hotline specifically for reporting those who are driving carelessly. (so that those mobile police may follow up where possible)
- Increase the upper speed limit on the highways (except for PSVs), and also introduce lower speed limit on these highways (to deal will those trucks that move at 40kmph on the highways)
- Combine Insurance renewal with vehicle inspection.
- The government should have a serious campaign against careless driving (the same way they’ve done against careless sex in relation to HIV spread)
- And finally find ways of getting rid of those stray dogs (and Donkeys)………I hear that there was a time when town councils would poison those stray dogs?