Only God, Makmende will save us
To the untrained eye, the mini-bus was a hearse. It was dark in colour and red bands tied to the side mirrors fluttered as it hurtled down Lang’ata Road at frightening speed. To the police officer on the Lang’ata Road/Uhuru highway round-about clutching a walkie-talkie, it was a matatu disguised as a funeral procession trying to beat the clampdown on Passenger Service Vehicles.
As the "mourners" disembarked from the Ongata Rongai manyanga, I was left with no doubt about the futility of the "sustained and deliberate" crackdown on PSVs flouting the Highway Code and those unworthy to be on the road. Obviously, it had been waved on at numerous police checks on its way here.
Truth be told, roadblocks have not achieved much before and we have the grim statistics of death, broken limbs and other costs to show for it. Actually what goes on at roadblocks is perplexing. An officer carries out a sweeping inspection, done more to give room for the tout to slip a Sh50 note down his pocket than to detect any lawbreaking.
On Saturday along Lang’ata Road, President Kibaki’s exhortation to the traffic officers to rein in traffic offenders took effect. But alas! When you come to think of it, the President’s call for a crackdown is hardly a cure.
In its own right, the matatu industry has arrogated itself the power to be the masters-in-chief of all that is good and bad with the Kenyan Republic, defining the way and how we get to work, school, worship, death and even funerals because depending on the experience with the matatu you took today or the one ahead of you, you could either be in high spirits or (as is most of the time) be outright downcast.
Over time, society has been bullied into accepting chaos on the road as part of it and regard it as normal. The matatu industry thrives on violence, extortion, thuggery, bribery and bullying.
Like you could probably be today, I was aghast to see the same matatu back on the road today morning in a perplexing business as usual manner.
If there was any punishment then it must have been a slap on the wrist because the man on the steering wheel displayed the same notoriety and dismaying discourtesy. The end justifies the means and the matatus will overlap, drive on the pavements, on the grass and flowers just to get ahead of the other motorists.
So what to do?
Indeed, road safety should move away from the predictable, costly and disruptive harassment we witness on the road over Christmas, Easter and after a President’s directive.
First, talk is cheap. President Kibaki’s clarion call that the police clamp down on the PSVs is simplistic because that narrows the problem to the state of the vehicle. Mostly, it has to do with lack of painful punishment for the moron driving at high speed on the wrong lane, hazard lights on and blaring music.
In truth, deeper issues contribute to the bad state of affairs on the road. It is important to understand what drives someone into such dismaying levels of aggression and bewildering disregard for the rule of the law and what could be done to rehabilitate or ostracise such deviants.
On one side, it is hard to think that a man who got up at cock-crow will not have lost his bearings by sunset given the bothersome passengers, debilitating heat and diabolical traffic jams. Many private motorists also play in the same league of delinquency as the matatus though nobody could claim it is long hours on the road that give rise to the bad manners they display also especially in the night.
The inexorable decline of safety on the highways could be attributed to weak laws, bad roads and obliging traffic officers keen to have their palms greased rather than ensure strict adherence.
By running rings around the traffic officers, matatus have always espoused a dogged determination to cut corners and circumvent the law.
Yet ultimately we must prod matatu drivers to disavow road carnage. Of their own will, the drivers cannot change. But two things will guarantee us change: God and the real Makmende in the form of technology.
Often, it is the egos of the manic driver grinding against the heavy hand of the officer at the roadblock and acquiescence of the private motorist. So, why not invest in technology? No one can cheat God nor can one dodge a traffic camera equipped to read an offender’s number plate and post him an invoice for the penalty, London-style.
Prayers have worked miracles. Technology has made even the non-believers to stop and think before engaging in any traffic misdemeanour.
The writer is Foreign News Editor at The Standard.
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