When a driver's licence was sure bet for employment

Driving licence. [File, Standard]

Every year, over 3,000 Kenyans are lost to road accidents. Most of these deaths occur within the most productive bracket of our society.

Authorities have tried all tricks in the book, including stiffer penalties and re-introduction of the breathalyser, commonly known as the alcoblow. Many blame the reckless manner in which some public service vehicles are driven for the increase in fatal accidents.

Safety on our roads, however, has been a thorny issue for successive regimes. As far back as 1960, the colonial government was put to task to tame runaway road indiscipline. Sir Charles Markham, a member of the Legislative Council, moved a motion in the House in March that year, urging the government to control the mushrooming driving schools that were blamed for poor driving instructions.

"One of the reasons Nairobi has perhaps the lowest standard of driving in the world is because the people who have been taught to drive in recent years have not been taught properly," said Markham.

Back then, the assumption was anybody who had just acquired a driving licence was equally qualified to teach another person how to drive, resulting in both "first-class (driving schools) and others doubtful."

He thought the Kenyan instructors seemed to get their inspiration from Britain where a Birmingham student passed his lessons "and the following day his instructor saw him teaching driving with 'L' plates of his own." Another fresh graduate in Hertfordshire was the following week advertising "evening classes". 

Markham told the House that his aim in moving the motion was not to "prevent a friend teaching a friend, or a husband, if he is so stupid to do so, teaching his wife how to drive." What he regretted was the "crowding of Africans at the back of 'peculiar lorries' along Lang'ata Road with "L" signs that masqueraded as driving schools. "Some of these lorries are peculiar in shape and certainly the instructor seems to have little idea of what he is meant to be doing," said Markham. 

But why were Africans so eager to get a driver's licence when few owned vehicles? Basically, the new instructors were cashing in on high unemployment rate among citizens who felt their chances of getting employed lay in them possessing a driver's licences, especially in the commercial vehicle segment.

Interestingly, some of the schools, according to Markham, could guarantee their pupils a pass. He did not know how this could be "although rumour has it that there are methods" - likely by cash changing hands. Similar accusations of driving instructors "facilitating" traffic police officers so that their charges pass driving tests continue to surface.

In the meantime, poorly trained drivers, both within the private and public sectors, continue to stain our roads and cause needless loss of lives.