Nightmare of navigating super highway

Saturday January 21 2012

WILLIAM OERI | NATION A section of the eight-lane Thika super highway which is currently under construction by a Chinese company. Motorists say it is one of the most difficult roads on which to find one’s way around in Nairobi.

WILLIAM OERI | NATION A section of the eight-lane Thika super highway which is currently under construction by a Chinese company. Motorists say it is one of the most difficult roads on which to find one’s way around in Nairobi. 

By NYAMBEGA GISESA [email protected]

While driving on Thika Road near Juja Town in March 2011, lawyer Muturi Kigano suddenly noticed concrete blocks right ahead of him. There were deep trenches on both sides of the new super highway.

His decades of driving experience could not help him. There was not enough time between him and the heavy rocks ahead to devise a way out. He was cornered. And to think that for about four hours the road had been so clear!

For the former commissioner in the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), those few seconds felt like all he had to live. His Sh8 million car hit the concrete blocks and rolled several times.

The vehicle was written off by insurance assessors, and his insurance providers had to compesate him for a new vehicle. Mr Kigano lived to tell the tale but had to spend more than five months recovering from head injuries.

Police at the Juja station says on that night alone they recorded three more accidents at the same spot.

Mr Kigano is one of the Thika superhighway road users who have taken the contractor to court over negligence. The Chinese company Shengli Engineering Construction Group was ordered last year by Justice Hatari Waweru to deposit Sh10 million in court before the hearing and determination of the case filed by the lawyer.

Mr Kigano accuses the company of blocking sections of the road without marking the deviation and providing warning, and he is seeking to be compensated for medical expenses in the amount of Sh892, 500. The lawyer also wants compensation for loss of income at the rate of Sh200, 000 per month for the five months he took to recover from the head injuries.

An appraisal report by the Africa Development Bank and the government dated September 2007 for the Nairobi-Thika Highway Improvement Project projected fewer accidents as one of the outcomes. The target is to reduce the average annual accident rate on the Nairobi-Thika section from 230 to less than 70.

But users of the new Thika Road take a cynical view of such statistics.

“I doubt it; accidents may increase instead,” said Mr Gilbert Olum, an earlier accident victim during the early stages of the road construction.

Mr Olum said the road needs properly marked lanes, clear road signs at various loops and bypasses and adequate lighting at night to ensure the safety of motorists.

The stretch from Kenyatta University to Thika has little or no signage despite numerous road diversions, concrete boulders and open gutters. It is also unclear how the designers intended for pedestrians to cross the eight lanes with motor vehicles coming at them from both directions.

Far from living up to its billing as East Africa’s greatest infrastructural development, the highway has gained the reputation of being one of the most difficult roads on which to find your way in Nairobi.

For lack of signage, motorists not used to the changing face of the road have to follow PSVs that ply the route – or just drive along on the proverbial wing and a prayer. Non-regulars have been known to hire motorbike riders to lead them through the road.

A common complaint about the ambitious project is that the route one takes to drive to a particular location can change without notice at any time. If you stop a traffic officer and ask for directions, he or she will shrug and wish you good luck; they have no clue either.

On Friday afternoon, Mr William Njoroge, a quantity surveyor, was on his way to visit Ruiru’s Zabibu Children’s Home. He meandered along until he found his way.

“On coming back I wanted to take the bypass to Nairobi city centre, but I failed to find a way to connect. There was not a single road sign to direct me, and I felt it dangerous to use the wrong side of the road and confront speeding oncoming vehicles,” he told the Sunday Nation.

One of the worst expriences is at the Ojijo Overpass where motorists exiting the intersection can barely see oncoming vehicles. Although the contractor for Lot 1 – China Wu Yi – has erected temporary signs on sections of that stretch to reduce the chances of accidents, they are very small and only clearly visible when drivers are on top of them.

When Mr John Kaguru hit a dangerously abandoned concrete boulder on the middle of the road past Mathari Mental Hospital on December 19, 2011, traffic police officers rushed to the scene, looked at the car with a smashed windscreen heavily damaged front end and asked him, “Is anyone injured?”

When Mr Kaguru answered no, the officers told him he could go home., saying that the accidents were becoming very common, and they was nothing much they could do. He was shocked.

Towing service providers along the road told the Sunday Nation that they were doing a booming business as the accidents that were only frequent through weekends now occur anytime of day.

“There is always a car hitting a boulder, two oncoming vehicles using the same side of the road colliding or hitting a pedestrian crossing the road. These cases happen over 10 times more than they used to,” said Mr Peter Njoroge, a breakdown vehicle operator.

A undetermined number of pedestrians have died because of what their relatives believe is the negligence of the road constructors.

Recently resident of Kahawa West and Zimmerman protested the numerous deaths of children in an open ditch filled with water. It was left unfilled by the constructors.

Ms Carolyne Kiprono, a fourth-year student at United States International University in Nairobi, died in a tragic road accident on the night of September 16, 2010 at Roysambu, 20 metres from the gate of Pan-African Christian University.

She was headed back to her residence after attending a birthday party when an oncoming vehicle on the service road with no signs to direct motorists crashed into the motorbike carrying her.

Nairobi Traffic Commandant Patrick Lumumba says that signage and crossing points are urgently needed on the road.

“We don’t have to wait until accidents  happen. The only thing that can be done is to put up speed limits for motorists and  pedestrian crossings at particular points where we have residential areas near workplaces and offices. That could be either overhead or underground. We also require markings on the road because some motorists get confused,” Mr Lumumba said.

Researchers at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies say that people living in residential areas close to the road have been exposed to respiratory diseases since the construction of the superhighway started.

Prof Evaristus Irandu cited the findings of a recent study that showed increased levels of respiratory diseases and other health complications due to high dust levels.

The study also found out that contractors were using fresh water to damp down some of the dust during construction thereby reducing the amount of water available for domestic use.

Liquid waste generated by the construction was finding its way into domestic water sources.

Residents have also been complaining of increasing noise levels and vibrations that have resulted in cracks in house walls.

Spokespersons for the Chinese contractors and the Kenya National Highways Authority could not be reached for comment.