MOTORING: So many answers to the wrong question

Saturday August 26 2017

A bodaboda operator and customer during a downpour in Eldoret town on October 16, 2014. FILE PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

A bodaboda operator and customer during a downpour in Eldoret town on October 16, 2014. The most numerous motor vehicles in Kenya today are now officially motorcycles.  FILE PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The most numerous motor vehicles in Kenya today are now officially motorcycles. Apparently there are nearly a million of them in registered use on our roads.   Next come cars with a count of  about 900,000, followed in round numbers by utilities, vans and pick-ups, about 300,000, then trucks at 150,000, buses and minibuses at 100,000, trailers at 50,000, and tractors and construction equipment at 25,000. Grand total: About 2.5 million. 

Those figures are stratospherically higher than anything previously touted, and the Statistical Abstract is shy on precise type definitions, classes, ages, conditions etc. But the numbers are official enough to be the formal basis – in commerce, research and policy – for planning, among other things, “universal vehicle inspection”. 

The original initiative from the National Transport Safety Authority (NTSA) is described in draft Motor Vehicle Inspection Regulations 2016, anchored under the Traffic Act. These caused sufficient surprise and alarm (regarding both the overall concept and the specific detail) among stakeholders that the process was sent back to the drawing board. And there it has remained, among many other pending policy issues and commercial decisions, until “after the elections”. Meanwhile, commentators and researchers have been busy and there are now many papers offering counter-proposals. Sadly few have even addressed, never mind resolved, the most important issue.     

Instead, keynotes of concern include the sheer scale of the task; the suggestion that it might be carried out by State institutions only; by the possible hobbling of free market forces in the massive business potential involved; by a proposed ban on inspection being carried out by vehicle repairers; by a lack of standards on inspection equipment and systems; and the spin-off dangers of all sorts of policy, economic, legal and commercial conflicts and anomalies. 

But the concept itself has not been robustly challenged. The initiative, and all its implications, are posited on the statistic that “5pc” of “road crashes” are “caused” by “vehicle defects”. Perhaps the greatest wonder (and disappointment) is that research has got past all three of those profoundly non-specific assertions. 

Certainly, 5pc of road crashes is not an insignificant issue, and everyone accepts the value of roadworthiness – not just for safety, but also for operational efficiency and  environmental responsibility. 

But even if we do not challenge (or at least substantiate) that figure; even if we don’t question the criteria of accident cause, or distinguish what particular types of road crash result from what type of defect, or what the primary causes of those defects are in the first place… …surely we must ask what “causes” the other 95pc of road crashes (is the answer to that question not 19 times more important?), and question what is being done about those. First! By all means let us address the cause and remedy of every type of road accident, but perforce in some order of priority.  

In a world where all resources are limited we must first determine which cause(s) are most crucial, and what action on which of those causes will have the most assured, beneficial and cost-effective outcome. On those criteria, Vehicle Inspection might not even get on the agenda! 

There are so many more pressing problems, and more practical remedies, and higher priorities.