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Madding rain and peculiar calling habits on our roads

It rained in Nairobi last week, and so there were traffic jams everywhere.

Study that statement again: it is a non sequitur. The “and so” conclusion does not follow from the first part of the sentence. Yet in Kenya it is a statement of fact, banally true: when it rains, there are traffic jams.

Why so, people? It is not because of flooding – even light drizzles cause the jams. It is not because we don’t have windscreen wipers or because we have never seen rain. So what is going on?

Perhaps it is the type of rain we get. Perhaps the powers-that-be-in-the-sky shower us with a unique variety of rainwater, one that releases latent madness. The jams are caused less caused by physical factors like blocked drains and old cars, and more by utterly insane behaviour. Something happens to Nairobians when that water touches their skulls and bonnets – they lose all sense of decorum and decency.

I once sat in a long jam, barely moving. A truck-driver decided he had had enough and tried to mount the opposite pavement and overlap everyone. The pavement was flooded, so he could not see that there was a deep ditch right next to it. He plunged into the ditch and broke his front axle. His lorry now dangled onto the road and blocked the entire oncoming lane as well. What was a bad jam was now a complete gridlock. The driver appeared to feel no remorse.

This time around, I sat in a long jam, barely moving (we do that a lot around here). I watched a man in the oncoming lane driving fast while talking loudly and gesticulating on his mobile phone. Animated by whatever inane conversation he was having, he lost control of his steering wheel and mounted the pavement. A mother and child, already suffering in the driving rain, narrowly missed being crushed by our buffoon. He regained control, got back on the road and carried on driving (and talking). He appeared to feel no remorse.

Having plenty of time on my hands, I decided to count the number of oncoming drivers talking on the phone while driving. You may or may not be surprised to learn that seven of the next twenty drivers were on the phone. I presume they were telling someone it was raining. This is not a scientific measurement – that is for the professionals to do – but count for yourself and see. Kenyans do indeed have a peculiar love for calling while driving, seeing it as necessary and harmless.

It is neither. We are fond of thinking that our driving technique is so superior that talking on the phone while driving is child’s play. It is anything but. Study after study has shown that doing this severely impairs awareness, lane discipline and reaction times. Indeed it is reportedly more dangerous to drive while yakking on your device than it is to do so when drunk – another national Kenyan pastime. I don’t even want to think about the number of drunks who drive while talking on the phone…

Talking on your cellphone while driving dramatically increases the chances of you killing someone, or yourself. So why do it? Which call is that important that it cannot wait a few minutes? Most of those calls are just exchanges of platitudes and other gibberish anyway – is that worth endangering lives?

We won’t stop Kenyans from doing this by appealing to their better natures. This would require shock therapy enforcement. Perhaps someday soon our police force will be credible enough to crack down on the problem without it becoming a license for more corruption. Meanwhile, there is a big opportunity for enlightened mobile-phone companies to run public campaigns, as this is a major safety issue. Will there be any takers?

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