Last week, a Kiambu magistrate gave Kenyans a mighty jolt when he appeared to accord driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs a measure of respectability. A careful reading of his ruling, however, indicates that he was only going by the books and, true to his interpretation, there is nothing in the Traffic Act which forbids going behind the wheel after drinking alcohol; what is unlawful is failing to control the vehicle while drunk.
The only problem with that sagacious ruling is that drink-driving is perhaps one of the worst killers on Kenyan roads because alcohol impairs judgement and is a clear danger to society. As a result, I would not advise motorists who love their tipple to take the magistrate’s ruling too much to heart, for they will regret it — and they should. In many parts of the world, DUI is a most serious crime, which should be the case in Kenya too. As it is, the Grim Reaper has had a bountiful start to the year. True, inebriation is not always to blame, but since we only wake up to the reality when a huge number of Kenyans die on the road and rarely get excited when private vehicles crash, the war of attrition against our lives is bound to continue until we change our driving habits.
Already, by my own unsupported count, at least 30 people have died in road accidents this year, a very conservative estimate. This is because only when an accident claims a high number of casualties are they reported in the media, and this kind of data is hardly reliable. Obviously, many more people die long after an accident, by which time almost everyone has moved on except care-givers and the bereaved families. In short, Kenyans have only a hazy idea of the actual number of accident deaths at any one time.
However, it is generally agreed that Kenya leads in the number of road deaths in Africa — and the world. Why this should be so has long been puzzling considering there is no empirical evidence the country has the worst drivers in the universe, lacking in skills and the will to live. The only conclusion is that we lag behind the rest of the world in traffic law enforcement due to a simple reason: runaway corruption. In a situation in which every traffic police officer seems to be on the take, nobody should expect PSV drivers or private motorists to play ball. It is always easier to bribe your way out of trouble than to attend court.
Another reason such grim statistics endure is that any official attempts to restore order on the roads are, at best, only transient. The year 2004 will always linger in people’s memory for that is when the heretofore unthinkable happened: There was a genuine attempt to stamp out indiscipline on the road with the rigorous imposition of the Michuki Rules. This is when Transport minister John Michuki stared down the entire matatu industry and there was an immediate reduction in the number of road deaths.
Before he forced down the rules on PSV operators, no one thought the transport sector could be tamed. The rules were basic: Speed governors, functional seat-belts, uniforms and badges for drivers and touts. There was to be no more over-lapping, no obstructing other vehicles, and no stopping to pick up and drop off passengers at non-designated spots. After Michuki left the ministry, the number of accidents went back up to their mind-numbing pre-2004 levels.
Fast forward to November last year, and we went back to the same ritual and the same vigour under Dr Fred Matiang’i and Mr James Macharia. For a while, everyone thought the crackdowns carried out on PSVs would make a difference. Today, board a PSV and you will realise nothing much has changed. In many such vehicles, the seat belts only secure the knees, while the drivers have found ways to override speed limiters, and in rural areas, to cram excess passengers into their vehicles.
There is no doubt that this will go on until the next crackdown when unruly PSV crews will obey the rules for a short while and then derisively go back to their old ways. There are two reasons for this. The kind of mobilisation witnessed in November and December by law-enforcers was simply unsustainable. There is no way so many people can be deployed all over the country to check on errant motorists for any length of time. Police officers, APs and NTSA personnel have many other things to do.
Secondly, the very idea of sporadic swoops does not make much sense; they inevitably lead to evasion by non-compliant matatus, punishing commuters and leading to inconclusive outcomes. What is really needed is a sustained effort to ensure traffic rules are obeyed all the time. Perhaps this could be best achieved by deploying more officers on motorcycles to patrol the roads and corral errant drivers. That would restore order, especially on roads leading to and from the city infamous for daylong jams. Kiambu and Magadi roads readily come to mind.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor ([email protected])