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We must put an end to road deaths

By The Standard | Updated Mon, January 2nd 2017 at 00:00 GMT +3

There was collective outrage and shock arising from the recent accident in Naivasha after a vehicle carrying flammable products exploded, the fire spreading to a number of vehicles and killing at least 40 people.

Unfortunately, that outrage only occurs during such dramatic disasters, yet road traffic accidents now rival the devastation caused by malaria, Kenya's leading public health problem.

Despite owning less than half of the world's vehicles, Africa's roads are the deadliest.

Slipshod enforcement of traffic rules, bad roads and inadequate accident and emergency care services are some of the factors that make our roads risky. The data paints a miserable picture: of the 10 nations with the highest death rates, eight are African.

Nine out of 10 of the approximately 1.3 million people who die on the roads each year come from poor and middle-income countries.

In Kenya, the National Transport Safety Authority (NTSA) says the country's roads are getting more dangerous, with a sizeable increase in fatalities from 2015 to 2016 being reported.

This should be a cause for major national concern, because the toll is not only on the individual families but also on the country's economy.

Traffic accidents have put considerable financial stress on affected families, but also wipe off important human resources.

It is estimated that the cost to low- and middle-income countries is US$ 65 billion, more than all development aid received.

What is unfortunate is that a lot of the steps needed to stem the trend are relatively inexpensive.

These steps begin with understanding the specific drivers, so to speak, of road traffic accidents in Kenya.

Other than the main causes of road accidents such as driver error from speeding, overloading, drunk-driving, driving defective vehicles, the architecture of our roads is appalling.

Most of our roads are dark at night and there are hardly signs to warn drivers about the danger spots ahead.

Moreover, most of them lack shoulders in case of breakdown and there is no room for overtaking leading to those dangerous manoeuvres we see every so often.

With Christmas and the New Year holidays upon us, there is increased activity on the roads.

As usual, many Kenyans will be on transit to visit friends, families or heading on a holiday to enjoy the festive season away from home.

While this is a joyful season, for many people it will also be a time of great misery sadness.

God forbid, statistics indicate that the deaths from road accidents spike at this moment.

The National Transport Safety Authority recently released statistics that show slightly less people died due to road accidents this year and that the fatalities might not get to the 3,000 per year. Yet that offers false comfort.

In 2015, more than 3,000 people died on our roads, a majority of them passengers in public service vehicles (PSVs).

Most of the gains in the reductions is because fewer pedestrians died on the road than anticipated.

Could this be explained through the development of more pedestrian paths along the major roads and the construction of overhead pedestrian bridges in major towns?

However, the number of passengers and drivers who have died in motor vehicles accidents has slightly increased in 2016 compared to 2015.

Compare that to a country like say, tiny Sweden. Sweden's roads are the world's safest.

Only three of every 100,000 Swedes will have died in a road crash this year far lower than the average of 5.5 in the European Union or 1.4 in America.

Kenya's death toll is 10 times that. Comparatively, Sweden has nearly double the size of cars in Kenya. So how has Sweden managed to save life and limb?

First of all, the roads' architecture in Sweden prioritises safety over speed or convenience.

Low urban speed limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bicycles and oncoming traffic have helped.

Sweden has made great use of the "2+1" part of the Vision Zero, a campaign concept where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking. That has saved lives.

Ending the carnage on the road is not the task of one hawk-eyed policeman who doesn't take bribes from motorists, or the design of world class roads.

No, it is about the joint efforts of all players, but mostly on the behavioural aspects of the motorist.

They need to be coaxed into obeying the Highway Code and being exhorted to know that it is their own lives that they will cut short when they drive recklessly.

Three years to the end of the United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety, Kenya must decide that venturing on the road must not continue to be the perilous proposition it currently is.