Let boda boda associations regulate sector for safety

Listening with journalist Amina Abdi-Rabar to students and teachers in the fertile county of Kisii this week, we were troubled by many stories of teenage boys leaving the classroom to operate boda bodas for a living. Coupled with tales of boda boda riders defiling secondary school girls, it is easy to conclude that the industry is a menace to society. This would be simplistic and false. As the Public Service Motorcycle Transport Taskforce starts its public consultations this week, a new dawn may be on the horizon.

The spike in public motorcycle industry can be traced back to 2007. Within a decade, motorcycles were responsible for one in two of all motor vehicle registrations. Today, 800,000 boda boda riders contribute to the livelihoods of more than four million people. It is a billion-shilling economy attracting new digital-based service providers. The growth of this industry owes much to our congested roads, traffic jams and public transport crisis. Morocco and Ethiopia have invested in light rail trains.

South Africa and Tanzania have successfully initiated rapid transport lanes. In the absence of these strategies in Kenya, public service motorcycles have proliferated. They offer the ease of door to door transportation and dancing past long lines of stationary vehicles. Visiting Vietnam in the 2000s, I remember being spellbound as I watched thousands of motorbikes weaving through narrow streets of Hanoi. The motorcycles of Hanoi are legendary. Imagine having five million motorcycles in a population of seven million people.

As the taskforce consults the public on what laws, policies and guidelines are needed to regulate and promote the industry, passenger and driver safety, licensing, taxation and crime will predictably come up. The National Transport and Safety Authority estimate that the second highest number of head-on collisions involve boda boda riders and their passengers. The World Health Organisation calculate that they make up 36 per cent of all the emergency cases in Kenyan hospitals. Seventy five per cent of these cases involved riders and passengers who failed to put on their helmets.

A careful glance on our streets and village paths will reveal boda bodas without helmets, face masks or reflector jackets, two or more passengers and probably, no driving licences or insurance. While motorcycles produce less carbon dioxide than cars, they do emit high levels of nitrogen oxide. This has led to respiratory problems such as wheezing, persistent coughing, flu and bronchitis. Two-wheeled crime is another complaint from the public. In 2016, criminals on motorcyles were responsible for 13 per cent of armed robberies and street-based theft in the country.

Back to my trip to Kisii. Accustomed to tragic stories of adolescent pregnancies, unsafe abortions and violence against girls, I was surprised to hear cases of secondary school boys playing truant to go ride boda bodas for money. Attracted by the possibility of earning between Sh500 and Sh1,000 a day, school no longer makes sense to these boys.

Mwalimu Gregg Mwendwa argues that operating a boda boda today has the attraction kinyozi barbers had two decades ago. Attempts to persuade teenage boys back into schools and to stop gender-based violence must continue. Boda boda associations must actively work with teachers and human rights organisations to do both. Authorities and passengers must insist on checking for national IDs and driving licences at all the ramps and stages. The cost is not just individual. Truancy and absence from school sabotages the right to education. It also undermines the Education ministry’s commitment and investment to ensure 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school.

The boda boda industry is here to stay. The reforms must enshrine the importance of strong independent associations that are able to self-regulate the sector within national policy and laws. The past lawlessness associated with the sector is also the consequence of patronage and interference by politicians anxious to harness the mobility and reach of boda bodas for their own popularity and power.

The Macharia-Matiang’i appointed taskforce can accelerate the use of mass and social media platforms to solicit the views of the public. Our recommendations are critical to making the sector safer, profitable, environmentally friendly and an important driver within the broader public transport sector.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]