Ideas & Debate

Only change of habit can turn around road safety

A road accident scene. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A road accident scene. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The serious road accident on Thika Highway last week was just one of many fatal accidents that have occurred recently.

News of many other serious accidents across the country was indeed drowned by elections noise.

My assessment so far is that whereas the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) has excelled in creating new road safety management systems, these have not translated into significant safety improvements. We are yet to move below the legendary figure of 3,000 annual fatalities.

The NTSA needs to engage in a habit-changing crusade to sufficiently capture the minds and hearts of road users.

I am talking of an impactful high visibility campaign supported by uncompromising enforcement. This will hopefully implant lasting safety awareness and practice among road users.

Public engagement and education on road safety should be a continuous process, not just when serious accidents occur.

Effective use of media and road shows should deliver the message that one fatality or injury on our roads is one too many. To capture public imagination, campaigns should focus more on human losses and impacts.

And this will not be an easy task for indeed Kenyans are generally a society that thrives on taking shortcuts and risks with human lives.

But we know it can be done because the late John Michuki, in his own unique style, nearly succeeded in reforming road safety. He was visible and forceful which are two critical ingredients for changing bad habits in Kenya.

I will now discuss a critical aspect of road safety that has not been sufficiently emphasised and this is “fitness to drive”. We have overly focused on driver impairment caused by alcohol use and altogether ignored other equally lethal aspects of driver incapacity to drive safely. Among them is driver fatigue and sleepiness.

Many of the highway accidents involving heavy vehicles (goods and PSV) may be attributable to driver fatigue and sleepiness. However, investigation reports usually blame the visible causes such as speeding and overtaking.

This is because we do not as yet have ready scientific methods and traffic rules to detect or deter driver fatigue and sleep deficiency which interfere with driver alertness.

Long distance drivers work under a lot of mental and bodily stress due to strenuous traffic and work conditions and tight deadlines.

Often the drivers have no control of when and how much sleep to indulge in, or when to stop for rest and meals. These factors cannot be checked or controlled by the traffic police yet they make the driver vulnerable to accidents.

Imagine a driver who stops for lunch at the only place and time available to him. Assume that he takes a weighty meal of ugali and nyama choma on a very hot afternoon.

This creates a perfect recipe for a nice dreamy snooze when the driver hits a straight and smooth stretch of a highway.

If the vehicle veers of the road or gets into a collision, it becomes a mystery accident on an otherwise safe stretch of a road. No one will ever know the real cause of the incident which in this case was drowsiness.

There is a whole litany of other conditions that can make a driver unfit to drive. Persons driving when emotionally upset or severely worried, and those seriously ill or under heavy medication are unfit to be on the wheel.

That “piriton” tablet to clear a stuffy nose may be as dangerous as a few glasses of wine when driving. To know when not to drive, or when not to accept to be driven by an unfit driver, is good decision making for road safety. This is one key and urgent agenda for public education.

A similar campaign is urgently needed for motorbike riders and passengers. There is a lot of bravado and adventure in this area where unimaginable unsafe happenings have been institutionalised. The NTSA should go a full stretch and tame the “boda boda” sector.

Public education and awareness should be made a pivotal part of road safety management systems. But this will need to be accompanied by effective and uncompromising enforcement of traffic rules.

Effective enforcement always reinforces responsible road user practices.