Blame game amid rising fatal road accident cases

Modern Coast bus that was involved in an accident that claimed the lives of 35 people at Nithi Bridge. [George Kimenyi, Standard]

When it rains, it pours. This is a befitting description of the rising cases of road accidents in the country that have resulted in many deaths recently.

Hundreds of accident survivors have also been left with lifetime scars or their movements limited to crutches and wheelchairs.

For months now, accidents have been rising steadily on several roads, and the lower the number, the faster the case is swept under the carpet.

But the July 24 accident involving a Modern Coast bus that claimed 35 lives on Nithi bridge in Tharaka Nithi County has stirred public anger after it emerged that the vehicle could have been faulty.

The driver's widow reported that he had complained that the ill-fated bus was not in good condition but the issue was not addressed before they embarked on the journey.

“He would tell me that he had had a rough time operating the vehicle whose brakes could fail,” said Beatrice Wakuthie.

More shocking is the revelation that at least 76 people, who travelled using this popular bus company since 2017, have died in separate road accidents.

Besides the many deaths in the last five years, more than 100 travellers who used the same bus company have been left with injuries, with some of them sustaining permanent paralysis.

Tharaka Nithi County Police Commander Donatha Chali said the accident was as a result of human error, adding that the driver approached the bridge at high speed and the brakes failed, causing the bus to hit the guard rails and plunge 40 metres into River Nithi.

Immediately after the accident, National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) Director General George Njao suspended the operations of the bus company.

“A thorough multi-agency investigation into the crash and an evaluation of the operator's safety operational standards is currently underway. We condole with the families of those who lost their loved ones in this tragic crash and wish quick recovery to those undergoing treatment,” said Mr Njao in a press statement.

According to NTSA, the number of deaths resulting from road accidents that have been recorded this year have already surpassed those recorded last year by 8.3 per cent.

The NTSA data shows that for the last seven months, a total of 2,696 people died, including 957 pedestrians, 247 drivers, 471 passengers, 245 pillion passengers, 35 pedal cyclists and 741 motorcyclists.

Last year, 2,490 people died, including 849 pedestrians, 252 drivers, 399 passengers, 238 pillion passengers, 54 pedal cyclists and 698 motorcyclists.

A majority of these accidents involves petrol oil tankers, buses, trucks, matatus and motorcycles.

In 2018, a bus veered off the road and crashed in a valley on the Kisumu–Muhoroni road at Fort Ternan, claiming 55 lives. They were travelling from Kakamega County and headed for Nairobi.

The accident stirred public anger after it emerged that the bus had excess passengers, yet it had passed through several police roadblocks.

The owner of the bus company and fleet managers were charged in court for operating an unroadworthy vehicle and flouting guidelines governing PSV operations.

Drivers and bus conductors no longer wear uniforms or badges, with low levels of compliance with the 'Michuki rules'.

Though sporadic, the accidents, whenever they happen, always hit national headlines because they cause multiple deaths, massive destruction of property and leave scores with life-threatening injuries.

Most times, they involve head-on collisions, matatus slamming stationary trucks as well as fuel tankers exploding into a huge fireball after smashing into others.

Authorities now say missing signposts and road marks, careless driving and narrow bridges are the major causes of the numbing carnage.

The Kipkaren river-Kaburengu junction, a 15km stretch along the Eldoret-Webuye highway, is one of Kenya’s most dangerous roads, claiming tens of lives in repeated horror traffic accidents.

For the last 15 months, at least 30 people have been killed on the busy highway and over 50 left nursing life-threatening injuries.

Matatu Owners Association (MOA) Chairman Simon Kimutai told the Sunday Standard that 80 per cent of the road accidents are a result of human error, corrupt practices by traffic police officers and having unroadworthy vehicles on the roads.

He said during the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of accidents was lower than it has been this year due to the containment measures that restricted travels.

However, when the restriction was lifted, Kimutai said, the number of accidents went up.

“We see police officers openly taking bribes from PSVs in broad daylight, in fact, they have many toll stations on the road as opposed to ensuring that sanity is maintained. They are busy enriching themselves at the expense of Kenyans' lives,” said Kimutai.

He said the move by the police to turn a blind eye to enforcing traffic rules has seen indiscipline creep back to the roads, adding that some vehicles operate without requisite documents, and overloading and speeding are rampant because police want to get money.

“We have driving schools that are working in cahoots with NTSA officials to issue driving licences to people who have not attended any driving lesson in exchange for money. This driver finds themselves on the road and are the ones causing the many accidents we are witnessing,” said Kimutai.

“NTSA should stop making kneejerk declarations whenever an accident occurrs. They are the biggest weak link in the campaign to stop road carnage.”

According to Kimutai, some drivers cause accidents due to driving for long hours without taking enough rest, a blame which he heaped on the management of some bus companies and long distance cargo trailers.

Police Spokesman Bruno Shioso said they are still working with NTSA in enforcing the traffic rules, despite the fact that they were removed from the roads.

He absolved the police from any blame over the increasing number of accidents.

“Without the police on the road the accidents would be more. The bus companies are to blame for the rising road accidents. Some of them have unworthy vehicles on the road,” said Shioso.

“Drivers are reckless and careless on the road. If they can take personal responsibility and be cautious on the roads, these accidents can be reduced.”

On the issue of driving schools dishing out licences to unqualified drivers, Shioso said that's NTSA's mandate. 

“I can’t talk about driving schools, they are not under our docket, we don’t control their operations,” he said.  

Njao, the NTSA boss, did not respond to our enquiries, but the authority’s motor vehicle inspection director Gerald Wangai blamed accidents on poor structural design of PSVs on Kenyan roads.

Some players in the sector blame laxity on implementing some crucial traffic rules, including the renowned Michuki rules that were aimed at curbing road accidents.

The Traffic (Amendment) Act, 2021 states that every vehicle that has been operated for a period exceeding four years from the recorded date of manufacture, shall be subjected to an inspection at intervals determined by the authority.

The Act warns that driving under the influence of alcohol or drug beyond the prescribed limits attracts imprisonment for not more than two years or a fine not exceeding Sh100,000 or both.

Rising cases of road accidents have also been linked to wanton extortion on the roads by the authorities that are supposed to enforce the rules.

A manager in one of the matatu saccos plying the City Centre-Ngong’ route with a total of 200 vehicles, said extortion is deep-rooted. 

“Every matatu parts with Sh1,000 protection fee per week and those that don’t comply end up in trouble,” he said, adding that this translates to a loss of about Sh48,000 per year. For a route with 200 vehicles, it means the operators lose around Sh9.6 million per year. 

Recently, Matatu Welfare Association Dickson Mbugua said nowadays road crackdowns are not sustained like before.

He blamed authorities for poor enforcement of traffic rules.

“We are good at drafting good policies and laws yet police officers who are supposed to enforce the laws are openly collecting bribes from the operators," said Mbugua.

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