Wednesday, August 14, 2013

If you didn’t know, Kenya’s most deadly hangman lives in a bus

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Over the weekend, I got insights about one of the most important and scary, but also most boring, issues of our times – bus accidents. Yes, bus accidents.

A chap who knows his buses, told me that buses in East Africa are more dangerous than matatus in accidents, but not for the reasons most of us think. Because they carry far more people than matatus, it seems only natural that more people will get killed and be injured in accidents involving buses.

Apparently not.

More than 3,100 people died on Kenya’s roads in 2012, and over 7,000 were injured. When buses are involved in accidents, the statistics are grim. For example, on January 6, a bus accident in Murang’a killed 47 people and injured 40.

An October 3, 1993 multiple road accident, involving a bus, truck, and other smaller vehicles on Nakuru-Eldoret road killed 35 people and injured 41.

On January 2, 1998, the driver of a Meru-bound bus lost control of the vehicle, and it plunged into Nithi River, killing 58 people, and injuring 42.

There are equally horrific recent accidents, the latest being the tragic Kisii school bus on the Itumbe-Igare roads which killed 20 school kids, but we shall stay away from these partly because the memories are still too fresh for the families.

It is the same story in Tanzania and Uganda. In August last year, for example, 17 people died and 78 were injured in a bus accident in Tanzania’s Sikonge district.

Some of the problems are not immediately obvious. For example, we don’t ask too many questions about what fans of Formula One racing call “ride height” and we ordinary folk know as ground clearance. Partly because of notoriously bad roads, it seems sensible that buses should ride so high.

However, the chap told me that part of the height is also because bus owners consider high buses “cool”, and passengers love them. However when the centre of the vehicle is higher, the handling is more dangerous and the likelihood of rollover increases.

I had read that the biggest risk comes from greedy operators who elongate the chassis (the frame) of buses to create room for more seats inside. That compromises the balance. The good man said the length of the body is not as critical as the material from which it is made.

Because most chassis on buses are basically for lorries, they are metal and heavy – and therefore heat up the tyres very quickly. With every kilometre of speed, the passengers get closer to death.

The solution, he said, is to opt for fibreglass bodies, as the regulators in other countries now require. It might not always be stronger than metal, but it is lighter and less stiff.

Because it is lighter, it is kinder on the tyres. Because fibreglass is less stiff than metal, it cannot be cut as easily as metal by flying glass. Of course, fibreglass bodies are more expensive than steel (you can even use an old one), but most importantly make more economic sense because they can be repaired after a crash. With metal, well, one mishap and its gone. Most times you can’t reuse or repair it.

In addition, in several countries buses are required to have laminated safety glass or high-impact acrylic plastic wind shields and side windows. But because we have scanty regulations and poor enforcement, our buses tend to have ordinary window glass – because they are cheaper.

And here is the bit that scared the daylights out of me: Imagine a bus with a heavy metal body, raised too high, with ordinary window glass, hurtling on the road at 150 kilometres per hour, and ka-boom. What happens?

The hard glass slips more easily from the metal frame, and keeps flying through the cabin at 150km per hour! Most people who die in buses in our part of the world, I was told, are beheaded or chopped up.

Thus every year possibly more East Africans are beheaded in buses, than have been legally hanged in the region over the last 50 years.

Adopting lower ride heights, composite or fibreglass bodies, and safety-glass windows would save hundreds of lives every year.

The problem is that the bus lobbies in the region are too powerful and politicians are either afraid of them, or are in their pockets. So the beheadings are likely to continue.

cobbo@ke.nationmedia.co & twittercobbo3