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Reflections on our roads and their users

There’s nothing like a quiet drive to aid the reflection process. Or so I thought. I embarked on a family trip to the great mountain in the heart of our country recently, and was able to think a little about the land we live in.

My first set of thoughts were about our drivers. These were stimulated by a man in a blue vehicle whom I will call Mr Pea Brain. Mr Pea Brain was a man in a hurry. He thought he needed to get to his destination way ahead of others whose time was less important.

Mr Pea Brain drove his car at high speed very close behind mine, and attempted to overtake twice. He was thwarted by oncoming traffic both times, and fell back behind me. Losing patience, he finally overtook me on a blind turn, having no idea what was around the corner. A large truck loomed before him suddenly, and he escaped certain death by millimetres.

You might imagine that would be enough to tame Mr Pea Brain and convince him to go slow on the kamikaze mission. Not at all. I observed Mr Pea Brain repeating his moronic feats several more times, each time placing himself and many others in mortal danger.

Now, you might imagine that Mr Pea Brain is a man of modest social standing, a deranged matatu driver, perhaps. Not at all: his blue car was a new Mercedes. What gave me most pause was the thought that off the road he might be a leader and decision-maker of sorts, a mover and shaker, a role model and exemplar. And perhaps doing all that with a brain, quite evidently, the size of a pea.

All that insane risk-taking, you see, doesn’t actually get you anywhere. All the cars on the road doing similar speeds tend to arrive at the same destination at approximately the same time. This is because the average speed achieved depends on the volume of traffic and the condition of the road, and those factors are the same for all. So with all his crazy weaving and heaving, Mr Merc Pea Brain might arrive, say, 15 minutes ahead of the driver who maintains a steady speed and does not take any dangerous risks.

Clearly we are not going to get anywhere by appealing to the higher thought processes of Mr Pea Brain, because he does not have any. But in a sane society he and his ilk would be contained by law enforcement: they would be removed from the roads and prevented from posing the daily danger to society that they do.

Which brings me to the second set of reflections, concerning our law enforcers. Between Nairobi and Mt Kenya I probably encountered no fewer than a dozen police roadblocks. Did even one of them notice Mr Pea Brain and try to stop him, as the biggest danger on the road that day? Not at all. The guardians of the law are way too busy extracting road rents from public service vehicles, and ensuring that mild-mannered families are hassled about first-aid kits and reflectors, to worry about anything as trivial as a life-threatening lunatic.

We’ve covered drivers and regulators, now let’s move on to a third area: the road itself. A year ago I drove to the same mountain, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Kenyan rarity, a smooth road all the way to the destination. A year later, the section around Sagana is already pockmarked with potholes. Perhaps it rained a little in the interim; as we know, that is usually enough to put paid to our roads.

But I did observe Chinese contractors busy at work on the new, much-heralded Thika Road highway, even on a Sunday, and hoped against hope that these people would give us a road that lasts 30 or 40 years without needing major maintenance, the standard enjoyed by most countries. That is a little-known fact in Kenya, with our culture of shoddy roads laid by shadowy contractors approved by shady officials – with annual patching up.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking: what exactly are we going to do with our new highways when they finally appear? What is the point of a multi-carriageway if you have done nothing about the behaviour of road-users? If the average driver remains as moronic as Mr Pea Brain what exactly will we have achieved by giving him a faster road to drive on? And if basic lane discipline – such as driving on the left – remains a mystery to Kenyans, what is the point of adding more lanes? Three idiots hogging all three lanes at similar speeds can cause a jam from the mountain to the capital.

A footnote: during the return leg of this journey it rained heavily. As a result, there was not a single police roadblock anywhere on the highway. Our policemen also make hay only when the sun shines.

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