Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Do the simple stuff first

This may be the time to introduce quotas in our traffic department. Each traffic officer is given a target to raise a certain amount of money in the form of penalties from dangerous driving...—Carol Musyoka, The Nitpicker
The continuous catastrophic loss of life on our roads has yet to be acknowledged by the powers-that-be to be the epidemic that it is. They have only gone so far as to admit that there is a crisis. The solutions they have implemented have been solutions that have taken on a life of their own since Mwai Kibaki was the resident of the house on the hill: establish new agencies, enhance penalties, install speed and traffic cameras, et cetera, ad infinitum.

The causes of the epidemic are not that difficult to fathom, and corrupt police are not the principle reason why road fatalities refuse to go down. Among others are poor road design and construction, poor driver training, poor road maintenance and, ironically, extortionate statutory penalties, but I believe that it is poor road design that contributes the greatest share to the causes of road accidents and fatalities.

Our highways, which contribute a large share of death and injuries, are poorly designed even though their workmanship is of the highest quality. The shoulders are inadequate for vehicles in distress to safely pull off the road. Actual road width is too narrow, reducing the space available for motorists to use if they are in trouble. Pedestrians are hardly catered for and road drainage is rudimentary sometimes. The effect has been to narrow the margin of error by all road users, placing a premium on precision road use for many road users incapable of much precision.

Poor road design wouldn't be too great a problem if driver training were better. I remember an episode of the eponymous BBC Topgear where the hosts visited Finland, a nation with some of the most stringent driver requirements in the world. If I recall correctly, it takes two years for a probationary driver to get their full driver's licence. In that period a driver is constantly assessed to ensure that they do not pose a risk to other road users. Finland epitomises my philosophy: driving is not a right; it is a privilege that can and should be taken away from dangerous motorists.

One of the most dangerous accomplices to poor road design and construction is poor road maintenance. It isn't enough to fill in potholes when they form, but lane markings, road signs, traffic lights, street lights, entry/exit ramps, speed bumps and similar facilities must be well-maintained. Especially when it comes to lane markings, if they are not well-maintained, the risk factors inherent in poor road design and poor driver training are significantly heightened.

Finally, enhanced penalties have long been a double-edged sword in Kenya. In the selfsame Finland, traffic fines are linked to ones annual income. The complex points' system means that the higher one earns and the nature of the offence means that the traffic fine in Finland could be as high as $200,000! If we imposed such a fine in Kenya, perhaps in due time we would see the first police billionaire! 

When it comes to the law enforcement side of the equation, Kenya is in an abyss with almost no hope of rescue. Simply enhancing penalties will not solve the underlying challenges in the integrity of the police. Solve those and perhaps, we may yet enforce the law with impartiality and fairness. But for now, quotas and stiffer penalties will simply create policemen with billion-shillings Mpesa transactions. It is the small stuff that we need to do in order for the big stuff to work.

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