Picture this: you are critically wounded in a road accident and hospitalised for months. After enduring anguish and nearly exhausting your family’s fortune, you die. You leave behind your family without a breadwinner and on the verge of financial ruin. Agonising, right?
Yet, every year, thousands of Kenyans perish in road accidents. Others sustain injuries that forever change their lives. Grief strikes. Livelihoods are lost. Insurance pays. Or fails to pay. For each family, it is a case of irreplaceable loss.
But when this nightmare repeats itself many times over when the overall numbers are taken into account, it morphs into a societal tragedy whose impact reaches far beyond the family unit. And the statistics make for grim reading indeed.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), between 3000 and 13,000 deaths occur in road traffic accidents every year, with pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists most at risk. Passengers who use unsafe forms of public transportation account for more than a third of these deaths.
The latest survey on road safety in Kenya by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) also shows that pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users in the country.
This group accounted for 748 of the 1,967 deaths that occurred on Kenyan roads from January to August this year, representing 38 per cent of the fatalities.
In the same period last year, 1835 lives were lost in road traffic accidents, 693 of which were pedestrians, representing an eight per cent upward surge.
What is often not told, however, is the role played by victims of road accidents in the build-up to the incidents that cripple and kill thousands. Dead men tell no tales, after all.
Are you a responsible road user? What ‘negligible’ offences do you commit on the road, hoping to get away with it? Do you ask yourself how much a seemingly inconsequential error could change your life, or that of other people?
The nauseating culture of ignorance and selfishness are to blame for the many accidents on our roads.
But this is also the motivation behind Road Safety and Rescue Volunteers, a local initiative that creates awareness on road safety to minimise loss of lives.
George Nyaga, 32, is the director of the initiative, which he founded in 2011 drawing from his passion for humanitarian services. Nyaga was frequently a volunteer with Kenya Red Cross as a student.
“When Thika Road was being expanded into a superhighway in 2010, I realised that there were so many people being knocked down while crossing the road. There were no footbridges at the time, and these were erected months later,” he narrates.
It is this loss of life and injuries that motivated Nyaga to put together a team to help people, especially schoolchildren, to cross the highway. He personally facilitated and trained the team.
“After a few months, I realised that the task was very demanding in terms of time and money. I exhausted my savings and my business collapsed. Some of my property was even auctioned.”
“We are involved in road safety awareness, which we do through social media and road shows. We also offer rescue services and administer first aid to accident victims at crash scenes,” Nyaga explains.
“We also conduct rescue mobilisation for accidents that occur in areas where we don’t have volunteers. When such incidents are reported to us, we mobilise other volunteers and who can access such places with ease,” he adds.
Road Safety Volunteers enjoys a massive following on social media, especially on Twitter where they command an audience of 28,000 followers. The group uses these avenues to share traffic updates and safety tips to a national audience.
The outfit also reports drivers who are involved in bad behaviour on the roads to their Saccos or companies to discourage indiscipline.
According to Nyaga, reckless driving, drunk driving and faulty vehicles are the major causes of road traffic accidents in Kenya.
The weekends, he says, are the worst on Kenyan roads, as cunning Kenyans drink the evening away, only to drive home in the dead of night as soon as the police with their breathalysers have left the roads.
This tallies with NTSA’s latest report that 475 private cars were involved in road accidents between January and August this year, compared to 455 commercial vehicles in the same period.
“When these people crash or hit other vehicles, you will often find alcohol in the dashboard of their cars. Why do you expose yourself to the risk of death? Do you want your family to suffer the pain of your sins?” Nyaga wonders.
Other findings by NTSA indicate that, by April this year, 23 pedestrians had died along Outer Ring Road in Nairobi after they were knocked down by speeding motorists due to lack of footbridges.
The contractor, SinoHydro Tianjin Engineer, failed to put up security and safety facilities, including 11 footbridges, making Outer Ring Road one of the most accident-prone roads in the city.
Consequently, Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) had to extend the construction period to allow the contractor to erect these important facilities.
Nyaga, however, argues that lack of footbridges is not solely to blame for pedestrians’ death.
“While Kenyans will fiercely lobby for footbridges to be erected and Zebra Crossings to be marked, some of them still cross the road under the footbridges or at other undesignated spots, putting their lives and those of other road users in danger,” he notes.
There are arguments that footbridges in the country have either been infested by muggers or taken over by hawkers, which compels pedestrians to make the tough choice of risking life and limb to cross the road under the footbridge.
Nyaga further argues that most matatu Saccos do little to enforce discipline among their members.
He says: “Vehicles overload, drive at dangerous speeds and the crew assaults passengers without restraint. That all this happens right from the bus termini under the watch of Sacco inspectors and supervisors is very tragic for our country.”
According to the road safety activist, NTSA and the police alone cannot ensure seamlessness in the country’s transport system.
NEED TO BE MINDFUL
“Passengers must always resist the temptation to board vehicles that are already full or being driven without due adherence to traffic rules,” Nyaga emphasises, adding: “If we were all responsible, avoided drunk-driving, drove at the right speed, followed traffic rules and properly maintained our vehicles, we would not only shrink the number of fatalities but also reduce the grief in our society.”
He describes as selfish the habit of Kenyan motorists to park and repair their vehicles in the middle of the road when they experience mechanical problems in transit.
“The majority of the crashes that occur along Mombasa Road involve motorists driving into stationary trucks. Some truckers are arrogant because if someone hit them from behind, they will incur minimal damage themselves. Why can’t you mind other road users?” He wonders.
Nyaga notes that travellers are inconvenienced when they spend long hours in traffic jams as a result of minor accidents owing to some motorists’ lack of courtesy.
He highlights Kambiti along Nairobi-Nyeri highway, Athi River along Mombasa Road and Mai Mahiu in Narok County as some of the most notorious spots.
“The highway is not a garage. If you are disinclined to pay a small fee to have your vehicle towed to the roadside for repairs, just imagine the lives you put at risk by leaving your vehicle on the roadside. We must stop being selfish,” he remarks.
Nyaga observes that when lives are lost daily along Thika Superhighway, “the best infrastructural project we have in the region”, questions should be asked about the integrity of the Kenyan society “and not the soundness of the multi-billion shilling project”.
“No day goes without lives being lost along Thika Superhighway, even with clearly marked lanes and visible signage. Lane indiscipline, rash overtaking or pedestrians crossing at illegal spots are the main causes of deaths along the 50-kilometre stretch of road,” he says.
Statistics from NTSA show that Thika Super Highway is the deadliest highway in Kenya, with 16 black spots.
Through his work, Nyaga has had the occasion to be at horrifying accident scenes in major highways across the country, experiences he describes as upsetting.
“My team and I have volunteered to pull badly injured victims and bodies from crash wreckages, some which were so disturbing that even the police could not touch. Some of the survivors will tell stories of how the vehicle was being driven carelessly. This leaves one wondering why no one could speak up early enough to avert the tragedy,” he narrates.
For eight years now, Nyaga has fully funded Road Safety Volunteers using proceeds from his own events business and support from friends and associates.
LACK OF FUNDS
Nyaga’s cause faces numerous challenges, the biggest of which is lack of funding, which affects acquisition of gear, training and facilitation for the volunteers.
“Very few organisations in Kenya have road safety as one of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. The government also does not fund projects that have not been tendered for. Raising money for the cause is, therefore, our biggest shortcoming,” he says, adding that there are no institutions in Kenya that offer skills in road safety.
That is not all. Nyaga is constantly threatened when he exposes matatus and commercial vehicles that are involved in road malpractices.
“When a powerful person is involved in a hit-and-run incident, for instance, they drive away and do not want the matter exposed. It is dangerous to pursue such cases,” he notes.
“We have more than 50 volunteers spread across the country. All of these work without pay or any form of reward,” he says.
The initiative is, however, recognised by the Kenya National Highways Authority (KENHA), National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), the police and county governments.
With little publicity and even less resources, but with a strong resolve to end the insanity on the roads, Nyaga’s achievements could not be overstated.
This brings to the fore the question: How much would a government with endless resources, huge publicity and manpower achieve if only a little more effort were put into taming the carnage on Kenyan roads?
But, even more importantly, how many lives would be saved if all road users exercised caution and followed traffic rules without failure?
Harsh punishment for traffic offences might tame road carnage
Traffic offences are treated with varying degrees of severity in different countries in the world. Loss of driving licences, extended jail terms and hefty fines are imposed on motorists for flouting what might appear to be negligible traffic regulations.
United Kingdom, Sweden, Bermuda, Oman and some Asian countries are known to impose severe punishments for flouting traffic rules.
In a case that verges on the absurd, a Finnish businessman called Reima Kuisla was fined Sh63 million in for driving at 65 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour stretch of the road.
Penalties for traffic offences are so harsh in some countries that motorists frown upon even the thought of committing them. The result has been fewer road accidents and consequently less losses in such countries.
In the United Kingdom for instance, only 1792 fatalities were recorded in 2016, up from 1730 deaths the previous year. So far in 2018, about 2000 Kenyans have perished on the roads with four months still remaining in the year.
Speeding in the UK may cost motorists three penalty points off their driving license, a driving ban and Sh13000 on the spot.
Using a mobile phones while on the wheel attracts a fine of Sh130,000 in the UK, payable on the roadside, a deduction of six penalty points from their driving licence and, sometimes, even a lifetime driving ban.
Drivers are prohibited from using their phones even when sitting in traffic!
Careless driving on UK roads, lane indiscipline and even changing a radio channel would cost you £2500 (Sh327,000) in fines, cancellation of your driving license or land you in jail for five years.
Dangerous driving which includes dangerous overtaking, drunk-driving or racing other vehicles on UK roads attracts 14 years in prison and a lifetime ban.
In Taiwan, drunk-driving attracts a hefty fine of Sh670,000.
In most countries of the world, to reacquire a recalled driving license requires the offender to undergo a fresh driving test, but even so, penalties for serious road traffic offences are irreversible.
If such rules were to be introduced in Kenya, most drivers would lose their licenses while many more would end up in jail.