Why high-tech traffic cameras and lights will not solve Nairobi’s commuter woes

A worker sets up new traffic lights along Moi Avenue in Nairobi. Photo/SALATON NJAU
A worker sets up new traffic lights along Moi Avenue in Nairobi. Photo/SALATON NJAU  NATION MEDIA GROUP

The warnings have been stark and explicit, if a little off in their grammar.

You may have seen them shared on social media, or received an urgent-looking text on your phone: ‘‘Please note that traffic cameras which were erected within the Central Business District (CBD) are now operational.

‘‘This means that if you break any traffic laws (jump lights, make wrong turns, overtake in restricted areas, enter through no-entry areas, drop or pick at wrong points), your vehicle’s registration number will be captured and a warrant for your arrest issued.’’

And if that did not catch your attention, the warning becomes more frenetic: ‘The cameras are never turned off hence do not be fooled by low traffic, early morning or late night hours, weekends, Sundays and public holidays. Please also note that since there is a camera record of all these acts your not guilty plea in court will also not stand.’’

I detest Nairobi’s traffic lawbreakers as much as the next person. So I was both terrified and heartened. Terrified that I would make an inadvertent mistake in traffic and have to spend some time in jail; and heartened that at last there would be some sanity brought back into the chaotic traffic scene in the capital city.

Until last Wednesday. I was driving down Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi, coming up to the roundabout and set of traffic lights adjacent to the mustard-coloured Nyayo House.

Traffic at this intersection is typically heavy, but not as chaotic as at other junctions in the city. Making everything bearable, too, is the new set of traffic lights. They steadily count down the seconds until they turn, meaning that one can reasonably estimate the amount of time they'll have to endure standstill traffic.

So I wondered how come we had gone through two cycles of green lights, with no movement on our side of the road. That was until I noticed a policeman gaily directing vehicles with no regard whatsoever for what the traffic lights signalled.

When we finally got moving, it was (sadly and predictably) against a red light. Which got me wondering — if indeed the unambiguous warnings were to be believed and that I would get arrested, fined and probably have my car impounded because I ran a red light, would my defence that a police officer made me do it stand up in court?

And I came to the realisation that, all good intentions aside, there is a reason why life in Kenya in general is becoming more chaotic, despite our best technological efforts to mitigate the chaos.

A case could be made that the technological solutions we’re throwing at these problems could be exacerbating them, because they seek to solve the wrong symptoms. The first issue with the camera-based system is that we already know who is breaking the law, and how they are doing it.

Many times, public service vehicles, government apparatchiks, and private motorists change lanes in roundabouts, stop in the middle of the street to drop off and pick up passengers, and drive on the wrong side of the road.

All too often, this is right under the nose of traffic officers, who either couldn’t be bothered to engage the offenders, or are afraid of consequences (especially in the case of a GK vehicle with sufficiently-darkened windows). In short, taking photographs of offenders will have no more consequence than the status now, where traffic is largely a free-for-all.

The second issue is typified by our officer on Kenyatta Avenue last week. Kenyans are typically leery of technology, especially when it countermands what seems to be common sense. That’s why we breeze through traffic lights when the roads are empty (why should I stop when I’m only inviting thieves to make off with my side mirrors, goes the logic).

Propensity to distrust

For the policeman, there is no reason to hold back traffic when the other side of the intersection is clear, despite the fact that the officer does not have a full picture of the citywide traffic situation. This propensity to distrust technology will not be solved by pretty lights and flashing cameras.

Finally, who says there will be consequences? There is little evidence that the different data bases containing traffic information are linked. The Kenya Revenue Authority and the Registrar of Motor Vehicles may have a record of who owns vehicles with what number plates, but the limit of their data is a post office box.

There is no way — at present — to link a vehicle number plate to an actual, breathing human being, and even when there is, authorities couldn’t be bothered.

My friend Andrea Bohnstedt wrote of the saga of being sideswiped by a matatu whose number plate she duly took down, but despite her (and her insurance company’s) best efforts, the police seemed little-interested in tracking down the owner and driver of the offending vehicle.

There is little indication that there will be sustained effort on the part of either the police or of local authorities to follow up the promised photographic evidence.

So, lights! Cameras! Action! And then, as usual, lethargy.