The Computer Society of Kenya

Since 1986

Bitange-NdemoDAILY NATION By BITANGE NDEMO

Tuesday July 26, 2016

The infamous Salgaa black spot is in the headlines once again, after a family of seven perished there. 

In total, this spot on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway has taken several hundred Kenyans and maimed many others. 

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the number of Kenyans who have died at Salgaa this year equals the number killed by terrorism inside Kenya.

How long will it take for us to live by the idiom “once bitten, twice shy”? This black spot has taken many Kenyan lives, yet we do not take the necessary steps to curb this carnage.

As with every serious matter in this country, we seem to erase our memories of these nasty incidents instead of leveraging our anger to ensure positive action.

Google, of course, records virtually all accidents at this black spot, but that has not persuaded policy makers to comprehensively deal with the matter. Although I am not an engineer, the road design and indiscipline of our drivers are the main problems. 

Because of the rigidity of our curriculum, courses such Road Safety Engineering have not been mainstreamed in our training for engineers.

But our biggest problem is driver indiscipline. A radical transformation occurs when a Kenyan gets behind the steering wheel of a car.

A sadistic ghost of the normal self takes over, converting the simple task of driving into a death mission through total disregard of the Highway Code, racing and driving like a maniac.

I have noted that the better roads get, the higher the accident tally. Kenyans drive too fast relative to the roadworthiness of their vehicles and their experience as highway drivers. Yet it takes skill and experience to drive safely on a highway. 

A good highway driver must understand that safe driving depending on a variety of factors, including the power of the vehicle, visibility, driver eyesight, oncoming traffic, road gradient, wind velocity, texture of the tarmac, road signage and markings.

After a number of accidents, engineers decided to widen the section of the road at Salgaa. Now, the problem is that with the wide road and undisciplined motorists, the section, with its steep incline, has become more dangerous.

Drivers from both directions try to overtake multiple vehicles at the same time, yet the road bends sharply. There are all sorts of warnings, including “Salgaa Traffic Police 200m Ahead”, “Black Spot” and “Speed Limit 50”, but no one pays any attention. 

"DEAL WITH THE COLD"

There is no known research that could inform us whether drivers are illiterate or high when they fail to heed the warnings. For my dalliance with public transportation, I can attest that some public transport drivers are always intoxicated.  

In 2002, I invested in the transport sector. I bought a bus and started transporting passengers to and from western Kenya, a lucrative route. 

One of the challenges I experienced was the high turnover of drivers due to issues ranging from misconduct, stealing and drunkenness to absenteeism and many other misdemeanours. On one of my routine checks, I found one driver completely intoxicated. I asked him to go home and take a rest. 

The conductors laughed off my directive, telling me, “Boss, kila dereva ya usiku lazima avute kitu ya kutoa baridi” (Boss, every night driver must smoke something to deal with the cold). 

“Avute kitu gani” (Smoke what)? I asked.

Ganja, maze!” (Cannabis, man!), came the reply.

It was routine, I learned, for drivers to smoke marijuana to steel their nerves for long-distance night driving sorties. I was stunned. 

This revelation marked the end of my sojourn into public transport, and I returned the bus to my financiers immediately.  

Every piece of legislation is there to manage our transport sector but enforcement has become impossible. The question that lingers in my mind is: When will we start seriously enforcing the existing laws?

SPEEDOMETER READINGS

In my opinion, the only way out is to be disruptive in our approach to stemming this national tragedy by transferring liability to the passenger.

When a driver is overlapping and overspeeding, or driving an unroadworthy vehicle, it is usually with the blessings of commuters. It is not as if the passengers have no choice.

Therefore, they have as much responsibility in breaking the law as drivers and owners. If they wanted to arrive safely, they would protest, make a citizen’s arrest and hand the driver over to the police. 

Currently, a matatu driver will drive at breakneck speed, slow down at a roadblock, bribe an officer, then blast off like a rocket, while intimidating small cars out of the road with all manner of lights and sounds. The passengers won’t raise a finger. 

I propose that the police publish a phone number in every PSV where passengers can report badly driven vehicles. If more than three passengers text that the vehicle is being driven badly, the police should swing into action and wait for that vehicle without the driver knowing.

Transferring or replicating the speedometer of all PSV vehicles to where passengers can see it would help.

Passengers can then photograph the speedometer readings and post them, together with the vehicle registration and route, to the police, with a copy to traffic monitoring Twitter accounts such as @Ma3route and @kenyantraffic.

A police officer who fails to stop such a vehicle and book the driver should be guilty of an offence.

At the same time, the new security cameras need to be put in all the major highways to monitor driving speeds and manners.

Passengers in all badly driven vehicles should be charged with condoning bad driving, using the evidence from these cameras.

It is unfortunate that we put our lives in the hands of someone who is propelled by either marijuana or miraa and hope to get to our destinations always. If we all took a stand, things would change in a day. The late Hon Michuki showed us that it can be done.

ELECTRONIC NOSE

For now, anyone who dares raise their voice against contravention of traffic laws is quite often thrown out of the matatu, yet such people need to be praised.

The public must understand that it is their collective responsibility to ensure the safety of their lives. Passengers in private motor vehicles, too, need to urge their relatives not to drive fast or when one is drunk or fatigued by lack of sleep.

Some progress is evident, but all these new initiatives by the National Transport and Safety Authority must be implemented expeditiously. New tamper-proof registration numbers will enable the application of information and communications technologies (ICTs). 

Advances in ICTs into the Internet of things (IoT) will allow us to disrupt police services and start managing traffic from centralised locations.

The city of London, for example, leverages big data and IoT to improve their public transport system. It's one way of cutting the economic cost of accidents while also creating employment.

Every public transport vehicle should be fitted with sensors that relay information to a central command centre. The sensors would monitor the speed, braking systems and wheel alignment.

There would also be an electronic nose that could detect and recognise flavours and odours, to report if the driver is intoxicated. 

Once a vehicle is found to have flouted traffic rules, the message is relayed to the owners, insurance and the police. This system would lead to huge amount of data which could be sold to insurers, so that those who pose the greatest risk on the road are made to pay accordingly.

This may sound extreme, but the level of indiscipline in Kenya continues to hurt the economy.

POINTS SYSTEM

The new tamper-proof registration should provide for machine-readable data, so that if a vehicle is carjacked it can be easily traced. More importantly, if the car violates the speed limit, the fine would be sent directly to the offender.  

We also need to develop a points system to determine whether or not licenses should be renewed. It will be the only solution we have to deal with carelessness and irresponsibility on our roads. 

This will lead to the development of a new industry employing people at the back end, paid for by sale of data and fines from the offenders. 

Indeed many back-office jobs in India are to monitor traffic in cities like New York. 

The return of sanity to our roads would have an enormous ripple effect on the economy. The cost of healthcare would drop and the lives of our most economically productive citizens, who perish on our roads, would be saved.

We have failed to stop road carnage through legislation. Our last resort, then, must be technological disruption that will also create jobs for the young people in Kenya.

Some unknown person once said, "Anything that hurts you can teach you, and if it keeps hurting you, it's because you haven't learned." 

This is the time we must learn from perennial road carnage and device new ways of dealing with it. Only then can we say we have learned from our mistakes.

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