Ideas & Debate

Why State must prioritise safety awareness on SGR

President Uhuru Kenyatta flags off one of the SGR trains during the launch of the cargo service on May 30. FILE PHOTO | NMG
President Uhuru Kenyatta flags off one of the SGR trains during the launch of the cargo service on May 30. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Judging by what has transpired since its launch three weeks ago, there can be no denying the fact that the standard gauge railway (SGR) remains the most exciting but equally controversial subject of public discourse this year.

Exciting because it drew a heavy dose of mixed reactions upon its launch.

Hailed by its backers as a giant leap forward, the project has been sharply criticised in equal measure.

As the debate rages over whether the SGR will fulfil its promise of multiplying Kenya’s prosperity, it is becoming ever more apparent that the country needs to back the strides it’s making in infrastructure development with efforts to change mindsets in communities and society on related and equally important issues such as transport safety.

While Kenya remains some way from reaching the likes of China, Japan and most of Europe in the use of trains as a mode of mass urban transport, it has certainly begun the journey. This demands of citizens to start acting ahead of time.
They must begin to understand the changes in legislation that come with such grand projects. A case in point is the aggravation of penalties relating to vandalism of the SGR.

Such actions have now become serious offences under the Anti-corruption and Economic Crimes Act unlike in the past when they were treated as minor and the criminals were seen to be given a slap on the wrist.

To those who fully understand the cost of building such infrastructure, the aggravation of penalties is a rational and logical step. The country has so far invested in excess of Sh300 billion in the SGR project and still counting.

Security around the new railway line has been enhanced — another logical step, given the scale of cargo and human life at stake.

However, such developments have in the past not triggered similar attention regarding safety.

Many residents of Nairobi, will for instance, recall how the commissioning of the Thika Superhighway in 2012 saw hundreds of Kenyans lose their lives because they had not fully comprehended what using a multiple-lane highway entailed.

Neither the pedestrians nor the motorists were ready for the super-highway and it was only after multiple tragedies had occurred that  more foot bridges were erected, their use enforced and speed limits set. 

A similar tragedy occurred at the turn of the century after the State removed import tariffs on motorcycles, immediately increasing their use in cities and towns.

Being a new phenomenon in the country, it required a culture change — including use of road signs and protective gear.

More recently, the ferry service across Mombasa’s Likoni channel, has been revamped with the commissioning of new vessels to ease congestion in the port city.

Yet regular users of the service know it is not congestion that is to blame for the frequent near mishaps at the channel but lacklustre attitude to safety.

In all these cases, the law and relevant authorities in charge of transport safety have been late to anticipate these scenarios, train users and raise awareness on their proper use.

Every new transport offering, new infrastructure or opening up of existing infrastructure to new uses, should be a chance to raise safety standards and awareness among the users.

With SGR grade trains now operational, it is time to take stock and refocus attention to changing the culture and mindsets around transport safety.

At the centre of what is wrong with Kenya’s safety culture is the common understanding of it as something to be policed — never a matter of personal responsibility.

The conflict over the legality of some of the operations by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) only worsens the problem, with the public confused about the mandate of the authorities and the responsibility of individuals over their safety on the roads.

This explains the cheers upon news that use of the breathalyser by the police had been temporarily stopped, many having mistaken it to mean they had been left free to drive home after a heavy bout of drinking at the pub.

Without a change in this type of mindset, any other effort would be fruitless and a waste of resources.

As Kenya’s population, especially urban, grows, enforcing traffic rules will require more police officers, speed guns, breathalysers, jail cells and with it widespread corruption.

It is only rational that with the arrival of new trains, Kenya embraces transport safety by adopting a mindset that is in tandem with the technology we have acquired.

This is because provided that the new systems of transport adhere to the highest standards of safety, the rest is up to us as individual.

Instead of preaching forced compliance, Kenya should apply tools and techniques of positive reinforcement to uproot a deeply rooted belief that safety is for the police.

Primarily, transport safety should be included in the school curricula right from kindergarten.

At the moment, corporations, especially multinationals, are doing a fantastic job training their staff and raising road safety awareness, with some setting a zero fatality standard.

Ultimately, instilling a high sense of personal responsibility is the right approach to curbing losses from traffic accidents and eradicating corruption.