Modern highways are not enough; we also need to train drivers afresh

Thursday March 1 2012

By MUTUMA MATHIU

The Thika superhighway and the new by-passes in Nairobi will make traffic jams worse and increase road deaths.

Where motorists would typically be stuck in roundabout traffic, now they will be trapped underground in mists of exhaust fumes.

And where drunks used to end up on top of intersections, they will be flying out of overpasses and wiping out those on the roadways below.

Why? Because infrastructure alone does not lead to safety and convenience on the road.

Driver behaviour is as important, if not more so. I am sorry to have to put it this way, but there is a lot of idiocy in Kenyan driver behaviour.

First, there is the problem of technical competence, the ability to own, maintain, and operate a motor vehicle safely and with economic ease.

Many of the hotshots throwing their expensive machines around the new tunnels and lecturing their mistresses on bad driving cannot change a tyre.

Even in tiny countries, people drive fast and safely. I think most of our drivers cannot safely operate their cars at 80km/h. They would soil themselves at 120km/h.

It requires a certain level of maturity (I do not want to say civilisation) to exercise the mix of courtesy, consideration, and well-timed patience that is required for the smooth and safe flow of traffic.

A person who parks his car in the middle of the road to change a tyre, or beat his wife, or urinate on himself in a drunken state, as well as a person who elects to drive on the wrong side of the road just because there are other motorists in front, is a being whose social evolution is incomplete.

Such a being, before he is eaten, would fit well among zebras, gazelles, and warthogs in a game park. Kenyan women drivers are the most discourteous I have ever encountered anywhere in the world.

They tend to believe that so long as they have right of way, then nobody should join the traffic in front of them. It is not discretionary; it is a legal requirement to keep the traffic moving.

I have seen matatu drivers move their vehicles forward, in the opposite direction, and sometimes sideways (!) all in the same lane.

During rush hour, it is not unusual to meet matatus being driven in the opposite direction at the smaller roundabouts, on the pavement, and, of course, in the wrong lane.

I have come to the conclusion that most matatu drivers lack the intelligence to operate motor vehicles in a safe and socially acceptable manner.

They have a criminal mentality and a level of impunity and lawlessness that is unprecedented outside politics. We always assume that the problem with policing our roads is corruption.

However, in my estimation, 90 per cent of the police officers in charge of traffic have never owned or driven a motor vehicle.

They know nothing about cars beyond the theory they learnt at Kiganjo. You cannot expect creative enforcement from such an officer.

So what is to be done? Driving is not a basic human right. The Kenyan driving licence should be cancelled in toto.

It is a useless certificate which allows the most incompetent and dangerous madmen to operate complex machinery.

It should be replaced with a new one, issued only to those with the technical capacity, discipline, and courtesy to drive.

Second, all driving schools in Kenya should be closed and their owners handed over to Al-Shabaab for ritual whipping.

The development and implementation of a new driving ethos, including driver re-training, should be outsourced to Singaporeans or some such nation, which has demonstrated competence.

Third, introduce scrapping. For dangerous or irrational offences, the offending vehicle should be taken off the road, beaten into scrap, its driver banned from ever driving, and its owner never allowed to register another vehicle.

If the owner is a director or shareholder of a company or sacco, that company should never be allowed to own a vehicle in Kenya.

Fourth, ban drivers from changing lanes outright. When you join the highway, select a lane and stick to it until you get to a changing zone.

Fifth, no person without a driving licence and some experience should be allowed to be a traffic officer or warden.

We have spent billions on good roads. The only way we will benefit from them is if we get tough on drivers.