By Joe Kiarie
As President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga and other leaders led devastated residents of Kawethei location in Kangundo District in burying villagers killed in a grisly road accident, they were unanimous the police must act tough and tame road carnage.
But even as the sleepy village tries to come to terms with the loss of 23 people in a single road accident, yet another neighbourhood in Bureti District is in tears after losing six family members in a similar road crash.
The accidents occurred on the same weekend a fortnight ago and were synonymous in that they not only involved relatives who had gone to meet their in-laws, but also involved hired vehicles that were overloaded and speeding. And with cases of merrymakers turned mourners on a constant rise, questions are emerging over adherence to traffic rules by groups attending social functions as well as the resolve of the police in ensuring they obey the law.
Matatu owners and motorists admit that this alarming trend of accidents is getting out of hand, and mainly blame the police for the carnage. But the traffic department denies culpability and says the buck stops with drivers and passengers. Peter Murima, the Kenya Motorists Association chairman, says most families attending social functions have developed a tendency of breaking nearly all traffic rules with impunity.
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"We have a situation where relatives, friends and neighbours are increasingly hiring buses to attend weddings, dowry payment festivities, funerals, church meetings and other social functions. But once the vehicle has red ribbons or twigs and a "private" tag fixed on it, it serves as a ‘permit’ to carry passengers up to twice its capacity while the driver feels free to speed perilously and break many other laws," he says.
Sense of impunity
Murima says in some functions, drivers overindulge; yet they are entrusted with driving the families back home late at night, while sometimes using routes they are not familiar with.
"This inevitably results in road crashes and it is not a surprise that most of the grisly accidents involving families are reported in April, August and December, the months in which most of these festivities take place," he says. He attributes this rising trend of accidents to gross laxity in the Traffic department and the Transport ministry, saying relaxed laws on transportation to social functions has inadvertently encouraged recklessness.
Matatu Owners Association Chairman Simon Kimutai admits traffic police officers have been extremely lenient in dealing with parties travelling to social functions.
"For instance, in the case of funeral processions, they tend to sympathise with the bereaved once they see the red ribbon. This is endangering lives, considering passengers do not even have insurance cover," he says. Kimutai blames the police for being reactive, saying they only swing to action once a major accident occurs. "This is a dangerous inclination since law enforcement must be regular and indiscriminate. Whether it is a procession to a funeral or any other social function, the law must be equally enforced," he says.
But Kimutai agrees most of the drivers in these events take too much beer, regardless of the pending dangers. He says the situation has been aggravated by the fact that most of them are strictly answerable to individual matatu owners, who he opines are merely after profits.
Kimutai also blames passengers for the carnage, saying most of them only complain only when an accident happens.
Traffic Commandant Joseph ole Tito vehemently defends his department against allegations of complacency in ensuring compliance with the law for vehicles ferrying commuters to social events.
The commandant says police officers have neither been lenient nor discriminative in law enforcement and blames the road carnage on well-calculated plans by the drivers of such vehicles to evade police roadblocks.
"It is not a coincidence that most of these accidents occur at night. The drivers carry excess passengers but deliberately travel back home late because they know they can easily dodge police roadblocks around this time. It is all about ignorance, negligence and a sense of impunity," he explains.
As was the case in the Kangundo accident, the commandant says such drivers are also increasingly using illegal routes and shortcuts to avoid detection. Ole Tito denies claims that his department only swings to action once a major accident happens. "This is the perception among most Kenyans, but we are not reactive. Planning a traffic operation is a process that cannot be worked out overnight," he states. He says the overall number of accidents in the country has gone down, but the number of casualties from individual accidents has risen.
As part of the solution to the high rate of accidents, Kimutai says it is time registered Saccos are exclusively empowered to provide transport to such functions as one of the lasting solutions to the problem.
"This will ensure only specific vehicles are hired. Drivers involved will also be easily held accountable in case of a mishap because they are known. The Saccos should also be empowered to revoke the PSV licenses of all known killer drivers," the chairman argues.
He urges passengers to also take charge of their own destiny. "When you board a public service vehicle and pay the fare, you secure a contract for safety and comfort. Just speak out in case you feel your life is being endangered, even if it means fighting to save your life, just do it," he advises.
Murima on his part says the police department must competitively and indiscriminately discharge its duties in a bid to save lives. He calls for the conspicuous labelling of black spots and equally expresses concern over the safety of pedestrians.