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Will the new traffic laws really solve the problem?

Kenya, we all know to our cost, has some of the worst driving habits and most dangerous roads in the world. Every single day, we lose many lives and many livelihoods to road incidents.

You notice I did not call them road “accidents.” Accidents happen unintentionally and unexpectedly. Our incidents are both intentional and expected. What else do you call a crash that ensues from vehicles driven at speeds that would shame sports cars on racing tracks? Or from driving intentionally on the wrong side of the road? Or overtaking brainlessly around corners?

The media often refer to accidents as having happened because a driver “lost control.” The implication is that an unfortunate and unexpected development caused the driver to lose control on the day. This is rarely true. Most of the drivers involved in these accidents “lost control” long before. They lost control of their thought processes, their discipline, their sense of concern for others.

No, our road incidents cannot be termed accidents, however loosely we define the term. They are the result of criminal negligence, or brainlessness, or both.

And so we have now introduced new traffic laws, imposing very strict penalties on those who drive badly or dangerously. This is good, yes? All those crazed, reckless drivers will now be reined in. Or will they?

Let us examine the issue from first principles. Were there no laws governing bad driving before? Of course there were. It has never been legal to drive dangerously. Our problem was not necessarily in the existence or nature of laws; it was in the observance of laws. So how will new laws cure what is in essence a problem of execution? If the implementing agency is flawed, how does changing the law change the reality?

Secondly, the issue of bad driving is not an overnight phenomenon. It is not something that a few bad people have just started doing. It is a tumour that has grown insidiously through the body of society. Dangerous drivers are no longer just a few crazed outliers; they are now your son, your uncle and, increasingly, your niece.

This is a drum that I have been beating on this page for years: that our road behaviour is going to hell in a handcart, and no one cares to stop it. Today, we have a situation where everyone from cabinet ministers to matatu drivers seem to think nothing of driving illegally and dangerously.

Let me be clear: I am all for more punitive laws. A strong deterrent is needed. But the body implementing the deterrent is flawed. Our police force is notorious for topping annual surveys of corrupt bodies for years now. We cannot fix the problem of enforcement until we fix the enforcing agency. And we cannot fix the problem of bad driving until we understand what ails our culture and our inability to live as a society with concern for others.

Meanwhile, the matatu industry went on a disruptive strike. Their complaint? That the penalties would be too financially costly for them. This can only happen in Kenya, where people admit that they intend to break the law, and ask to be punished less. Perhaps we should also sit down with killers and ask them what they think of the penalties for murder?

Meanwhile, all over Nairobi the offences continue. In my observation, the guilty are undeterred, but the innocent are nervous. The new laws give every corrupt policeman the power to shake down every ordinary driver, looking for the most minor transgressions (if any) to demand the most extortionate bribes. Was this really what we wanted to achieve?

The powers-that-be must give grave attention to the rollout of the new laws. They can’t sign the laws into effect and just go back to sleep. The job of reclaiming our roads for civilization has only just begun.

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