When school buses become agents of death on our roads

Wreckage of Kapsabet Boys' bus involved in an accident along Marigat-Kabarnet Road, Baringo, on March 16, 2024. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard] 

When a group of Form Two students of Kapsabet Boys left their school for an academic trip to Lake Bogoria last Sunday, they were optimistic that it would be a success.

As usual, they boarded their 62-seater school bus and kicked off their journey at around 8am.

Little did they know that the dark cloud of death was lurking in the shadows, waiting to add two more lives to the statistics of school buses involved in accidents.

Their journey was cut short along the Kabarnet-Marigat road after the driver lost control of the vehicle and hit a guard rail, causing the bus to roll several times.

When the dust settled, a teacher and a student lay dead as several others writhed in pain with varying injuries.

Barely three days later, 11 students from Kenyatta University died in another accident involving their institution’s bus on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway.

The two are among several accidents recorded across the country as claims of recklessness by drivers, fatigue, greed by school management, poorly maintained vehicles and lack of proper training are blamed for the spate of accidents involving school buses.

While some of the accidents have been beyond the control of drivers, others have been blamed on human error.

Some parents and drivers told The Standard that some drivers are forced to travel long distances and on unfamiliar routes and thus increasing their chances of getting involved in accidents.

The situation has been worsened by institutions hiring out their vehicles to ferry locals to burials, church events and weddings.

On Saturday, Fredrick Oluoch, a retired school bus driver in Kisumu, said that some school buses are not properly maintained.

“Sometimes a bus would be in a bad condition but we would still use it because management always said there was no allocation for hiring a different vehicle,” he says.

According to him, external pressure from communities to compel school administrations to hire locals as drivers, even without considering proper qualifications, is also a key reason for accidents involving school buses.

But as this happens, several families have been left grieving after their loved ones died in accidents involving school buses.

In the Coastal region, the Nairobi-Mombasa highway has turned into a notorious spot for accidents involving school buses, including claiming the lives of several students in public service vehicles.

The pain of losing a child never ends and is a perpetual struggle to live with, says Ms Alice Wanjiku Angina, who lost her daughter in a road accident on the Mombasa-Nairobi Highway.

Her daughter, identified as only Christine, had completed the Kenya Certificate for Secondary Education (KCSE) in 2022 and was waiting to join the university.

However, before settling on the university she would join, Christine decided to travel from Taveta to Malindi to consult her mother. The accident that claimed her life occurred in Ndii area on the highway.

She was among 13 others - some students heading to school - whose lives were cut short when the matatu belonging to Genesis Company collided head-on with a trailer at the Ndii black spot.

“I am still living in agony and overwhelmed with emotion following the death of my daughter,” said Angina in a phone interview.

Sadly, Christine is not the only student whose young life has been cut by the accidents at the Coast. A report by Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative for Global Road Safety found that several roads at the Coast are prone to accidents.

“High-risk fatal crash locations include Mombasa-Nairobi Road, Mombasa-Malindi Road/Links Road, Likoni-Ukunda Road and Changamwe Ward on the Magongo Road,” said the report released last December.

Last Monday night, 11 Kenyatta University students died while 42 others were critically injured in a dreadful accident at Maungu Township.

National Roads Safety Authority (NTSA) Coast Regional Director Manager Caroline Sankan said the fatality numbers on the highway were high and human error has been a big factor.

In one of the recent accidents, four people among them secondary school teachers and workers of a private school in Mombasa died and 22 others were critically injured in yet another road accident on the highway.

Police said the accident victims from Memon Academy were travelling home from Kidaya Ngerenyi where they had attended a burial.

The bus was ferrying 26 passengers to Mombasa at the time of the accident.

In yet another case in 2019, a Taita-Taveta University bus overturned on the highway and killed one student.

Yesterday, multiple interviews with the police described the highway as one of the major contributors to accidents that have claimed the lives of promising students, teachers and Kenyans in general, bringing misery to their families.

Competence of drivers

In the Rift Valley region, parents have raised concerns over the safety of their children following the spate of school bus accidents.

They questioned the competence of drivers and the mechanical soundness of school buses, expressing fears about the students’ safety during academic trips.

Ms Clara Koech, a parent, said schools should conduct refresher courses and health check-ups for their drivers every year.

“The recruitment of drivers should not be left to the school board of management. We need drivers to comply with the National Transport and Safety Authority’s (NTSA) regulations to operate school vehicles,” said Koech.

Nandi branch Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) executive secretary, Paul Rotich, said there is an urgent need for the Ministry of Education to compensate families which lost their loved ones and also cushion teachers left with deformities as a result of traffic accidents.

In Kisumu, education stakeholders have urged the government to enforce sweeping changes in the transport sector.

Late last year, seven people died on the spot at Kanyadhiang in Homa Bay County after a school bus transporting mourners lost control and plunged into a ditch. The bus belonged to ACK Guu Secondary School.

Similarly, in 2022, a pupil of Temudo Primary School lost his arm after their school bus was involved in an accident. 

According to Kisumu County Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) secretary David Obuon, all school bus drivers should undergo regular assessments and re-testing to ascertain their continued suitability for the job.

“There is a need to check the mental health of drivers,” said Obuon. 

Kisumu County Kuppet executive secretary Zablon Awange claimed the pressure of sharing buses was also a major contributor to the school bus accidents.

Sensitize drivers

“Some schools do not have buses and have to share with their counterparts. This means that the bus is used quite a bit,” he says.

Mr Richard Nyagal, principal at Joel Omino Secondary School. said most accidents can be avoided if drivers are regularly sensitised on the importance of road safety measures.

Police have blamed the accidents on speeding, loss of control and careless overtaking among motorists. Also blamed is corruption among the police and the failure by the government to formulate road safety programmes and strategies, create safety awareness and enhance the traffic legal and regulatory regime.

In Murang’a county, three pupils died three weeks ago after a school bus rolled several times on the Murang’a-Gitugi/Kiambu road.

The bus was transporting pupils back to their Maadili School in Juja, after the Scouts Founders Day in Nyeri.

On board were three teachers and 35 pupils, before it lost control and overturned along Gitugi- Murang’a road, a move that raised questions on the safety of the learners when they are on academic trips.

After the Gitugi road accident, others involving school buses followed suit and caused a public outcry as pain ravaged families across the country.

In March 2023, a school bus belonging to Mariira High School in Murang’a was involved in a road crash at Narumoru on the Nyeri-Nanyuki Highway, leaving 14 students critically injured.

At the time of the accident, the bus was headed to Ol Pejeta Conservancy for an academic tour, with 50 passengers on board.

School bus drivers we spoke to, however, said most of the vehicles were in good working condition, and instead blamed the accidents on other circumstances.

One of the drivers said the buses undergo regular inspection as the procedure demands before they embark on long distances.

“We have always been compliant and we want to be part of the solution to ensure the safety of the learners,” said a driver from Laikipia County.

On June 24 last year, eight pupils from Ebenezer Academy in Busia County died after their school bus was involved in an accident in Kaburengu, Kakamega., at 7.30pm. The bus was reported to have been hit by a truck ferrying ballast. 

[Report by Renson Mnyamwezi, Sharon Otieno, Clinton Ambujo, Boniface Gikandi, Robert Amalemba and Edward Kosut]