Monday, December 06, 2021

Change or die

A video was published on social media showing the exact moment 25 people died. The bus they were traveling in attempted to cross a swollen river at an unsafe drift road crossing. It is reported that the driver of the ill-fated bus hesitated for a long time before being urged forward by his passengers who were on their way to a wedding. It is also reported that some of the passengers argued that God would keep them safe. This terrible tragedy was avoidable.

In the same week, a speeding driver who is suspected to have been driving while drank hit and killed two motorcycle riders. It is reported that the dangerous driver is the son of a senior policeman. It is also reported that police procedures at the scene of a road traffic accident in which fatalities are reported were not followed. The dangerous driver was allowed to leave the scene of the accident without recording a statement. The vehicle that he was driving was not towed to the nearest police station. The policemen at the scene of the accident did not alert anyone about the accident. This tragedy could have been avoided. The events that followed could have been prevented.

There are many things that contribute to the dangerousness of driving on Kenyan roads. Some are highlighted in these tragedies: poor road design; poor mitigation of risks; poor driver training; and abuse of office by privileged road users. Take the manner in which the alleged son of the senior policeman was treated. He is not the first one to get away with traffic offences because of who he is or who he is connected to. It has become an ingrained part of our national DNA that senior government officers (and they friends and families) are not to be strictly bound by the law, even when their actions cause death and serious injury.

We have a word for this: impunity. It pervades every aspect of our lives. It is excused. It is encouraged. And as we have seen, it cause death, injury and destruction on a colossal scale. The single most important contributor to the contempt for the law that infects Kenyans' lives is the impunity of governmental officials, their families and friends. Why should the hoi polloi follow the law when the men and women who have sworn to uphold the law flout it with impunity and protect their friends and family when they flout it? Why should the hoi polloi obey the law when the forces of law and order conspire to defeat the ends of justice when the high and mighty commit offences? If our governmental leaders will not be held to account, if they will conspire with other governmental officials to undermine the law, and thereby defeat the ends of justice while causing death and injury, there is no reasonable cause to believe that the people they govern or lead will do the same. Widespread hypocrisy is simply not a good way to govern. And when it comes to road traffic accidents, fatalities and injuries, this kind of hypocrisy is deadly.

The Kitui tragedy was avoidable and preventable. Avoidable because the driver of the ill-fated bus should have turned back and found an alternative route to his destination and if such a route was not to be found, returned to where the journey began. No amount of exhortations from his passengers should have override his initial instincts to avoid the crossing.

It was preventable if only the crossing had a proper bridge or, if such a bridge was not to be had, a barrier across the crossing during the period the crossing was dangerous to use. One of the episodes on the Australian reality series Outback Truckers shows the lengths local authorise in the Australian bush will go to prevent tragedies on the roads. In this episode, the long-haul trucker comes to a similar drift crossing that is swollen; the river has broken its banks and is swirling over the drift crossing. The local authorities have posted a barrier across it and a notice barring its use. Our trucker is the only one on the road. He chooses safety and finds an alternative route. Our bus driver should have done the same. The Kitui County Government should have posted warnings not to use the crossing.

The Kitui county government's apathy, as that of the roads' authority and National Transport and Safety Authority, are responsible fr the deaths. The bus driver and his passengers are not the only cause of the tragedy. Because no one will truly be held to account for this kind of apathy, it is almost certain that the Kitui county government, the roads' authority and NTSA will not change how they govern the roads; the drift road crossing will remain dangerous when the river waters swell; and eventually, tragedy will strike again. The impunity we have permitted to metastasise when it comes to law enforcement on the roads has infected the design, construction and use of roads. If we don't change, death and injury will continue to stalk us wherever we go.

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