How Kenyan traffic officers can generate Sh8.4 billion revenue for the government annually

A police officer rides on a Boda Boda motorbike along Thika road on July 28, 2022. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

United Kingdom - 5.1, Germany - 6.8, Australia - 7.3 and the United States - 12.9. No, these are not the increases in the Gross National Product of these counties but rather the number of traffic fatalities per 100,000 vehicles. Shocking.

In the US, there are 12.9 fatalities for every 100,000 vehicles on the road. When you multiply that by the number of vehicles in the country, you end up with 40,000 deaths, about the size of a small town in Kenya.

In Kenya, the total number of people killed as a result of road accidents is much more modest. We only kill a little over 3,000 people per year.

But if you look at those deaths versus the number of vehicles in Kenya, the number is 640. So the UK is 5.1, Germany 6.8 and Kenya 640. That is shocking.

Driver behaviour

The National Transport and Safety Authority, traffic department and politicians blame road accidents on poor roads, black spots and speeding.

The reality is that even if you fixed all the roads, eliminated all the black spots and stopped speeding we would still kill the same number of people every year.

Why? The reason for the carnage on our roads is very simple - driver behaviour. Change driver behaviour and you will reduce the number of fatalities significantly.

It does not matter if the road is in poor condition or if it is a black spot. Road conditions and black spots don't cause accidents, drivers do. A well-behaved driver in any road condition or black spot situation is at no more risk of causing an accident than on any other road.

Speeding is always a concern, but speeding doesn't cause an accident, it only calibrates the extent of the damage.

Safe driving

The key to safe driving is space. In fact, there is an organisation that teaches defensive driving and their definition of an accident is, "two vehicles sharing the same space at the same time".

As long as you keep space around your vehicle, you will not have an accident irrespective of the speed you travel or the poor driving behaviour of other drivers.

Speeding is always a concern, but speeding doesn't cause an accident, it only calibrates the extent of the damage. [File, Standard]

And, black spots are only black spots because the bad behaviour results in more fatalities.

For example, in a long uphill stretch that has a curve, drivers decide to overtake a slow truck going over a solid yellow line. But given the limited visibility, there is a much higher probability that this bad behaviour will result in an accident.

Why Kenyans are poor drivers

So why is the behaviour of Kenyan drivers so poor versus the UK, Germany or Australia?

Again the answer is simple. In all of those jurisdictions, there are bad consequences for poor driving behaviour.

For example, the fine for overlapping (travelling on the road shoulder) is about Sh23,000 in Australia. That isn't a theoretical number. If you are caught overlapping in Sydney, they will fine you that amount - no questions asked.

And no amount of a bribe will get you off. An offer of a bribe will more likely get you into more trouble.

The same is true in Germany, the UK and the United States. In fact, all the countries with relatively low death rates are the same. They have consequences for bad driving behaviour and more importantly, they actually enforce them.

We theoretically have consequences for bad driving behaviour in Kenya as well. But we, or should I say the traffic officers, don't enforce them. How many times have you seen a matatu or car overlapping right in front of a policeman/woman and they do absolutely nothing?

I once opened my window and asked a policeman to enforce the rule and he told me to mind my own business.

Traffic police at work: Fines would drastically reduce irresponsible driving. [File, Standard]

As human beings, if you know there are no real consequences for poor behaviour, most of us will behave badly, at least part of the time, particularly if we see an advantage in doing so (like getting through a jam five minutes faster).

You see that in your children all the time. If you have a rule like no television until you finish your homework and you don't enforce it then I can guarantee you that your child won't do their homework.

A clear demonstration of this is to watch a 'typical' Kenyan driver drive in Australia. He/she doesn't overlap, pass when it is unsafe, etc.

How to motivate traffic officers to do their work

So if it is that simple - and I am sure it is, then why don't traffic officers do their job and enforce traffic rules rather than spend time stopping every second matatu and then letting them go even though most of them are mechanically unfit, don't have seat belts and are overloaded?

In my opinion, I think traffic officers are not required or monitored to enforce traffic rules. Instead, they are motivated to stop drivers to see if they can find something wrong so they can demand a bribe.

And while I am opposed to bribes in any manner shape or form, at least if the traffic police were stopping bad behaviour and accepting 'a little something' to let the driver off, it would be better than what we have today. At least there would be consequences for bad behaviour. The government won't earn any money but it would be a deterrent to the poor drivers.

So here is my proposal. It is relatively simple but I think it checks all the boxes.

First, reduce the number of traffic officers by 50 per cent. I am sure with the right kind of early retirement program we can do that.

A recent crackdown on bodaboda riders produced the desired results. [File, Standard]

Second, make all traffic officers mobile (on the road). It means buying a lot of motorcycles but it is only if the officers are mobile that will they be able to observe and stop bad behaviour.

There are very few countries outside of Africa that have traffic officers either stationary or worse walking.

So what does having 5,000 mobile traffic police officers mean? They would be required to stop and write a ticket (fine) for only one traffic offence per day. Is that difficult? No! I witness at least 20 traffic offences on my way to work (less than an hour's drive) every day.

Where Sh8.4 billion will come from

If, say, the fine is a modest Sh5,000, then the amount of money collected per month would be Sh700 million (28 days x 5,000 policemen x Sh5,000).

Now scale that over a year and the collections would top Sh8.4 billion. To make sure this works, we only require one fine/ticket per day.

If the police officer wants to stop more motorists and settle it in the more, but unfortunate, usual way, so be it.

The key is that there are consequences for bad behaviour.

But the real value in this scheme is not the amount of money that can be collected. It is changing the driving behaviour of Kenyan motorists.

How do I know that is true? I think we can just look at the recent boda boda operators crackdown.

The police just enforced the laws we already have. I am sure you noticed boda boda riders are now wearing helmets, not travelling on footpaths, only carrying one passenger, etc. So enforcement means people follow the rules.

Unfortunately, we all know this isn't going to last. In a couple of weeks, the police will stop enforcing the law and the boda boda riders will go back to their bad behaviour.

I am positive that if the traffic laws were enforced by a mobile traffic police force we would cut the death rate from traffic accidents in half!

This article was first published in April 2022.

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