The last time I wrote about road safety, in September, I received a heart-rending email from a Kenyan called Judith who lives in Switzerland.
She talked about one of her cousins, Mark. She said: “Mark had just gotten married in a colourful wedding and he became a father right after. On going home to Narok from Meru Methodist University, he was involved in a road accident near Satellite, a few kilometres from Maai Mahiu. We lost the bread winner of a young family”. Judith said Mark’s wife literally lost her sanity after the tragedy.
I was reminded of Judith’s story at the weekend when, on Sunday, I woke up to the disturbing news of the accident that claimed 43 people on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway, a road that my family and I use all too frequently when I go to visit my relatives in Nakuru.
What had promised to be the beginning of the festive season early this week turned out to be a horrific day. Even as Christmas festivities beckon, many families in the country are in mourning after the accident. They now have to wait for two weeks for the bodies of their loved ones to be identified through DNA. This means they will end the year, not with celebrations like everyone else, but with tears in their eyes and anxiety in their hearts.
When the accident occurred, Kenyans were gearing up to commemorate our country’s independence 53 years ago. Instead, many spent the day in sombre reflection, trying to come to terms with the horrifying news. The monster of holiday accidents had reared its ugly head again.
The Saturday night tragedy is a reminder that even as Kenyans plan to spend the holiday season with loved ones, we all must be on the lookout for our safety and that of our families.
In past years, the police and other agencies trained their eyes on public service vehicles as the most likely to cause road crashes. Now, however, the Naivasha accident, which involved a light truck that ignited the deadly inferno, has disabused us of that notion.
It has also turned the spotlight on government agencies, especially the Transport Ministry. In too many places across the country, speed bumps have been erected on highways and major roads without appropriate signage to warn approaching drivers. There are speed bumps literally in the middle of nowhere, many of them unpainted and without the slightest warning by way of road signs.
Although it is pointless to point accusing fingers and apportion blame after every accident, it is important that the Transport Ministry ensure that those awarded contracts to build roads also erect proper signs. This will go a long way to improving road safety.
Of course, the rules governing how vehicles carrying dangerous and flammable materials operate on the road ought to be more strictly enforced, with a caveat that such materials should not be transported during peak seasons to reduce the chances of a repeat of the Naivasha accident.
And since scrap metal dealers have lost any modicum of decency and public spirit they might have had, the National Transport and Safety Authority should contract companies to make road signs from plastic or synthetic materials that are not targeted by merchants. Several local companies make posts from recycled garbage and would be more than willing to use their innovations to support road safety.
I also think there are too many institutions handling road safety, making it difficult to understand who is responsible for what. The work of all these institutions should be harmonised so that it is clear to the public whom to go to when there is a problem affecting road safety.
I had hoped, for a brief moment, that in his Jamhuri Day speech, President Uhuru Kenyatta would order that the national flag fly at half-mast because we have lost gallant sons and daughters of our nation. Since that did not happen, maybe the next best thing would be to erect a monument at the scene as a memorial for the lost lives.
Those behind the wheels of the vehicles that Kenyans are travelling in to be with their loved ones this holiday season should remember that their passengers want to go home safely, not to their heavenly home.
Ng’ang’a Mbugua is deputy managing editor, 'Daily Nation'.