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New roads need new standards of driver behaviour

Have you ever found yourself caught up in one of those inexplicable traffic jams on one of Nairobi’s (very few) dual-carriageway roads? You’ve been there for an hour or more, crawling along amongst several hundred other cars, wondering why two whole lanes should be blocked. An accident, perhaps? Then, as you creep over the cusp of a little ridge that was blocking your vision, the vista opens up and you can see the road ahead.

You now see the problem: two huge trucks, one in each lane, are negotiating a steep incline in the road. Being the lumbering, ill-maintained beasts that they are, the trucks are moving at a pace slower than that of well-fed snails. But they have occupied both lanes in the road. Behind them is a seething, crawling mass of smaller, theoretically faster vehicles, forced to keep the pace of the trucks ahead. Ahead of the trucks is empty road.

This problem has been caused by gross stupidity. If the driver of the truck in the right-hand lane had accepted that he did not have the speed to overtake the truck in the left, there would have been no traffic jam. If he had left that vitally important right lane for faster vehicles, there would be no issue. But he did not, because he is both selfish and foolish. One man’s idiocy has brought the system down. If the man in the left-hand truck had recognised the driver on his right as an idiot, he might have simply stopped his vehicle and opened up a window of opportunity for cars behind him to overtake. But he does not have this power of recognition in him. Make that two idiots.

We could spend billions of shillings in building the Mombasa-Busia highway. If the powers-that-be could take their eyes off the political horizon for just a moment, this work might even commence in 2004. The road itself, we are told, will be a pristine two-lane highway. It will act as a vital artery in the commerce of our nation. Yet if we construct this super-highway and do nothing to change driver behaviour, we could throw our billions away. All it would take is two morons to bring traffic on the highway to a grinding, screeching halt.

You would think that the instruction ‘keep left unless overtaking’ is a fairly simple one to comprehend and follow. It makes obvious sense and keeps everyone happy. Not so in Kenya. On the new Langata highway, signs asking motorists to do exactly that appear at regular intervals. Does anyone obey, in the interests of common sense and the common good? Of course not! The scene I described at the beginning of this article is played out every day on that increasingly dysfunctional road.

What gives? Are we Kenyans just obdurately brainless? No, we are not lacking in acumen in other arenas. And it isn’t just mulish truck-drivers who cause the problem. High-powered executives in burnished BMWs can be just as obtuse. University lecturers in their gasping old VW Beetles also seem to have little road sense. What happens to us as a nation on the road?

Two forces are at play here: sheer ignorance, and utter lack of concern for others. Let’s start with the ignorance part. I postulate that a staggering majority of Kenyan drivers do not have even the faintest idea about what good road behaviour means. Anyone who graduated as a driver during the 1980s and 1990s is unlikely to have passed any meaningful driving test. He or she will simply have invested a few hundred shillings under the table in securing the little red document. No other skills necessary. To these drivers, the Highway Code is as obscure as the Morse code. Not consulted, not necessary, not needed. Just buy the license, get behind the wheel and hey, you’re driving!

The second factor is selfishness. If you had an iota of concern about anyone other than yourself on the road, you would not dream of hogging the fast lane. Giving way to other cars, displaying your indicator when turning, keeping your headlights dipped – these are not about you, they’re about being good to others. This, sadly, is a sentiment lost to us. When we’re on the road, we’re in a fight with every other road user. We must push, bully and manoeuvre to get our own way. On the road, as in so many aspects of our life, there is only one motto we understand: Me First.

What can be done? For starters, the brutal broom that recently swept through the judiciary must repeat its work at all public departments concerned with driver testing. A new, well-motivated, closely supervised cadre of officers must conduct driving tests from this point forward. With these people in place, we can then consider instituting a nationwide programme of re-testing of drivers’ skills. We may have to order all drivers to reapply for their licenses. This will be expensive, tedious and time consuming. It will be widely resented. But if we are serious about changing driver behaviour, we must get ignorance off the roads.

A second area of attack should centre on awareness. There must be a national campaign of demonstrating the basics of good driving and road courtesy. This must be done in a most professional manner, by leading advertising and public-relations firms, using the highest-impact media: billboards, television and radio spots, and full-page advertisements in the national print media. Road shows should hit schools, churches and community centres. The campaign must be systematic and relentless. Who pays for all this? If a little creative thought is applied, I am confident that a phalanx of private-sector stakeholders can be assembled: petroleum companies; motor-vehicle manufacturers; tyre makers. All of these companies have big corporate-citizenship budgets, and would love to be associated with a high-profile national campaign to bring sanity back to the roads. Just ask them and see.

Thirdly, we must get very, very harsh on road offenders. Caught clogging up the fast lane? That will cost you a serious chunk of your pay packet, madam. Picking up passengers at an undesignated point, Mr. Matatu Driver? That’s your vehicle impounded, and a week’s earnings lost. Caused an accident by overtaking thoughtlessly? Try doing without your license for a year, sir. There’s nothing new in severe fines and punishments like these: every civilised country has them.

None of this works, however, in the absence of two key ingredients in the Traffic Police and other regulatory organs: staff who can do the job, and managers who can run the system. At the dawn of 2004, both ingredients are missing. But for how long will we keep avoiding this fundamental problem in our public services? Good people and good management are at the heart of any enterprise. Reforming our country is less about spending money and more about taking a long, hard look at how we manage things. Are the 3,000 lives lost on the roads every year a good enough reason to start now?

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