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Stop blaming drivers; our roads are not good

By Leonard Khafafa | Published Tue, January 9th 2018 at 00:07, Updated January 9th 2018 at 00:11 GMT +3
The wreckage of the Nairobi bus and truck that collided head on at Migaa area near Salgaa. [Photo: Kipsang Joseph/standard]

A Kenyan parody is made of the American Dream. In this parody, it is said that the Kenyan Dream consists of a man with one wife, two children, three cars, a house in the leafy suburbs set on four acres, five miles from the town where the man works to earn a six-figure salary that pays his seven domestic workers who maintain his property that is next to an eight-lane Super-highway.

All the components of this Kenyan dream are attainable in one’s lifetime save the last one. Kenya has only one Super-highway presently and only a select few have managed to get more than three acres adjacent to it. My first major road trip took place in 1976. It happened by dint of change of family fortunes.

My father, perhaps in pursuit of the Kenyan Dream,took up a job offer that came with an irresistible pay package. The only catch was that he had to relocate his young family from the creature comforts of Nairobi City to the then backwater town of Eldoret. 

Off we went, one cold August morning. I recall purely from eidetic memory, the drive from Pangani through Old Naivasha Road, onward past Limuru, down the picturesque Rift Valley escarpment through Naivasha, Nakuru and finally, to Eldoret ten hours after departure. The state of the road then was relatively good, the cars and lorries were few and far between. Speed was determined mainly by the make of car. Ours was a Fiat 125, considered pretty fast in the day, averaging between 50 and 60 KPH. 

Times have changed. Eldoret is no longer considered to be in backwaters. Not this bustling metropolis with a skyline that rivals that of Nairobi. Everything one needs is found here.Everything! Great jobs, prime housing, world-class schools, universities and colleges and a surfeit of hospitals. There is even an international airport to serve the needs of those with the wherewithal. 

But the highway between Eldoret to Nairobi is relatively unchanged. It remains the same one from antiquity apart from the addition of a few climbing lanes and bridges.

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In the mind of those responsible for it, it does not need fixing, never mind the fact that the old cars, buses and lorries of yore have been replaced by sophisticated sedans, comfortable couches and impressive juggernauts ,all capable of dizzying speeds. It would seem to be the biblical case of putting new wine in old wineskins. The result? A bursting of the skins. 

With latter day traffic on 1970s roads, something has got to  give. The recent spate of grisly road accidents on the stretch of  between Sachangwan and Salgaa may be representative of that giving. A slew( no pun intended) of experts has inundated prime time TV with varied opinions on the causes of these accidents.

Who to blame?

An expert declares that these accidents are caused by careless or drunk drivers. Another opines that vehicles on this section are over-loaded and ill-maintained. Yet another faults road engineers for poor design ,inadequate signage and lack of speed-bumps. The bizarre attribute these accidents to acts of God and or the work of evil spirits roaming our highways. 

While it is possible to have some modicum of success in attenuating the causes of accidents by addressing the problems highlighted by these experts, it is nigh impossible to eradicate these problems altogether through the solutions they  propose. At least, not by increasing the number of policemen on patrol.

We simply cannot afford to have every single vehicle and driver inspected every day to ensure adherence to rules and regulations. Nor can we appeal to a pantheon of gods through prayers, libations and the pouring of oil on the roads. But there is a lot that can still be done to ameliorate the deplorable standards of motoring. The foremost thing to do is to create a mental shift in the way driving is approached in Kenya.

Drivers  must stop looking at other road users as adversaries that must be bested. Being on the road is not a competition unto death but a conveyance of passengers and goods from one point to the other in a courteous and considerate manner. The earlier we appreciate this essence of driving, the better for all. 

But to be fair to Kenyan motorists, the conditions of our highways make for fractious confrontations. The strictures of 1970s infrastructure such as the stretch between Sachangwan and Salgaa are a study in skill and patience. Expecting the driver of a five litre V8 fuel guzzler to crawl for kilometres on end is to expect that driver to have the patience of a saint.

Similarly, to prescribe speed limits that were set four decades ago, to the driver of a modern Scania bus is to invite him to succumb temptation. In short, a mental shift can only be precipitated by a physical change of infrastructure. For instance, if one wants to prevent the proliferation of slums, they should provide affordable housing.

The desire to engage in petty theft and thuggery is dealt with by provision of gainful employment. Similarly, the notion that motoring in Kenya is akin to playing Russian Roulette is repudiated by building roads and highways that reflect the changes in time. 

The president,in his tour de force inaugural speech made mention of some these issues . The construction of a dual carriage road from Salgaa to Mau Summit is a good start.It should not end there.While it may have come rather late in the day for accident victims on this stretch, it represents hope for survivors and many others, that their great expectations may yet be met. My father is now retired.

At 81 years, he has attained all but one of the components of his Kenyan dream; that of an eight-lane super-highway between Nairobi and Eldoret. I can only hope that Uhuru will not disappoint. 


Mr Khafafa is Vice Chairman, Kenya-Turkey Business Council