Going too slow causing more accidents than speeding...
I was much interested in your article in DN2 Motoring last week saying congestion caused by slow vehicles leads to tailbacks and “dangerous dodgems” and that it is “arguably the most important factor in Kenya’s motoring and road transport today”. It coincided with a front-page story on a spate of accidents which quoted transport stakeholders attributing most accidents to “recklessness, speeding, overloading and use of unroadworthy vehicles” and prompted a directive from the Cabinet Office to “enforce the Road Traffic Act in a manner that enhances road safety”. What do you make of these accidents and the official reaction to them?
Both reactions state the obvious, and also overlook crucial indicators that are even more obvious.
Of course recklessness, speeding, overloading and vehicle defects can cause accidents (singularly or collectively). And of course the traffic laws should be enforced in a manner that enhances road safety. But everybody already knows that!
What the call for “remedial action” needs to start with is why the “Ministry of National Administration in collaboration with the Ministry of Road Transport” might need to be reminded of that duty, and what are the factors that lead to recklessness, speeding, overloading and unroadworthiness in the first place. What and who is supposed to be preventing those hazards, and why aren’t they? What policies might reduce the need for (not just punish) delinquent conduct?
What the article and official response did not address, never mind “stress”, is that all of the reported accidents involved PSV vehicles, which are supposedly the most strictly regulated and inspected class on our roads, apparently driven “recklessly” by carefully vetted and specially licensed and highly experienced drivers, invariably when overtaking lines of traffic travelling unduly slowly (overloaded, despite a weighbridge station on the horizon) on a major arterial highway.
Burning Mercs are more memorable, not more frequent
I read your article on motor vehicle fires including recent example reference to two Mercs. I once drove a Merc 124 which caught fire while in motion when I hit a pothole - luckily I was close to a garage and we put out the fire before it could cause much damage. I also remember some years back a Merc caught fire on Mombasa road at the GM bridge and was reduced to a metal shell and ash – exact model no longer distinguishable. In your opinion/experience are Mercs generally more susceptible to burning than other vehicles?
I have no reason to think Mercs are any more nor less susceptible to catching fire than any other make. With some certainty, I would assert that they are not more at risk. Nor are they immune. If there were statistical grounds for thinking they might be more susceptible, we would have been told (one way or another) by their rivals…and Mercedes would have gone to great lengths to publicly refute or remedy. Bear in mind the global (and especially the local) status of Wabenzi – both their technical prowess and their socio-political associations. That makes the sight of one in distress more noticeable and memorable. How many other burnt-out shells have you seen over “some years back”, and completely forgotten?
Recklessness: Why matatus and others are pressured to take risks
Reckless driving (or some other variant in the realm of incompetence) is a factor in almost all accidents. Human error outscores vehicle defect by about 9 to 1.
The policy question is why are PSV drivers, whose experience, control and judgment is probably well above average, so conspicuously reckless? Anyone who knows the business model of contract-driving a matatu or freelance manamba bus knows the answer. As I argued in my piece in DN2 last week, congestion caused by slow vehicles and speed bumps has doubled journey times. How are matatu drivers expected to maintain a trips turnover good enough to satisfy their bosses and keep fares affordable without taking any risks?
The incentive for drivers is to hone their risk-taking skills enough times on every trip that they save enough cumulative time to make one extra long-distance journey each day, and the fares from that will probably be what gives them enough profit to feed their children. The legal rights and wrongs are clear enough, but the moral ground is a swamp.
For example, it is not a coincidence that the so-called “Delamere Black Spot” is where heavy trucks rejoin the Nairobi-Nakuru road and form queues of up to a dozen vehicles lumbering at between 20 and 40 kph – on a broad, smooth, flat and dead straight stretch of tarmac.
It is unrealistic to imagine that all other traffic should follow that queue at that speed on such a major road that should have an ambient speed of at least 80 (this road is part of TransAfrica Highway No 8!). Best practice protocol says these trucks should be overtaken one-at-a-time by one car at-a-time. Given the density of on-coming traffic, overtaking opportunities are few; the trucks themselves are trying to overtake each other and are driving nose-to-tail with and no one-by-one gaps for overtaking between them. There is a tailback of faster vehicles behind them with more joining the queue every second. Among them are competent drivers and incompetent ditherers, swift vehicles and…well, you know what else.
If the overtaking protocol was strictly followed, the entire flow of traffic would be reduced to and stuck at a speed of circa 20-40 kph for the whole journey. That might reduce the number of people dying in collisions, but it might increase the number dying of boredom…or old age. For even a semblance of progress, everybody (!) must breach the protocol. Matatu drivers are obliged to, and some other drivers are inclined to, make the boldest and pushiest moves, even if it means forcing on-coming traffic to slow down or go off the side of the road to avoid a collision. There are similar scenarios being played out at other places on this and virtually all other highways all over Kenya.
What do policy makers and planners and law enforcers think is going to be the outcome? And what is the solution - not just to reduce the number of accidents, but to do so while facilitating the primary purpose and imperative of rapid transit? That is why last week I said vehicles going too slowly are arguably Kenya’s single biggest traffic challenge. If that is not addressed, our traffic conditions will only get worse.
Somewhat alarmingly, in the recent spate of accidents one reported instance of “recklessness” was defined as “failing to follow traffic rules by overtaking on a continuous yellow line.” Such a by-the-book interpretation suggests a serious misunderstanding of the law and of the principles of road safety. What is “reckless” is overtaking when it is not safe to do so, whether there is a continuous yellow line, a broken yellow line or no line at all. Simply crossing a continuous yellow line is not an offence if it is done safely and carefully. There are many instances where it is necessary to cross a solid yellow line (e.g. when a lane is blocked by a broken-down truck), even more instances where it can be perfectly safe to cross a yellow line because it is painted in the wrong place and where there is plenty of clear-ahead view for a fast vehicle to pass an especially slow one; equally there are many places where it is definitely not safe to overtake but there is no yellow line at all! Yellow lines are essentially no more than a guide, because even where they are painted in the right (international standard) place, the clear-ahead distance required to safely overtake depends on the relative speeds of the vehicles involved. And in Kenya that relationship is far, far from standard.
Overloading: Why hasn’t this been stopped?
Throughout Kenya, a great many trucks (especially large ones, but also some smaller ones) appear to have a maximum speed of about 40 kph, even on straight, smooth and flat roads. On steep hills they go so slowly that you can count their wheel nuts. The question is why? The only technical answers are that they are either grossly underpowered for the payloads they are licensed to carry (who allowed that?), or they are in sub-standard condition (although inspected), or they are overloaded (for whose benefit?). The remedy lies in addressing all three possibilities to identify their underlying causes and establish who is failing to challenge and prevent them, and why?
Roadworthiness: Evidence suggests inspection doesn’t help
There is no doubt that roadworthiness is important. But there is huge doubt that universal inspection will ensure all (or even a few more) vehicles are roadworthy. Indeed, all the empirical evidence is that it probably will not. All of the accidents referred to in the “72 hours of road carnage” front-pager are already inspected. Did that help? For numerous reasons already explained in DN2 Motoring, if the objective is road safety (and perhaps that is a misguided presumption) there are more important and effective things to do first and, if the time eventually comes when universal inspection is an appropriate measure, there are better ways to do it. No one wants to own or drive an unroadworthy vehicle by choice. We live in hope…and some trepidation.
Speeding: Very rarely the root cause of accidents
In none of the accidents in the front-page report was “excessive” speed causatively necessary or evidenced. Of course some degree of speed is a factor in every accident, and that degree can make the consequences more or less severe, but it is usually a mistake to attribute speed as a primary cause. The only speed at which no chance of an accident can be almost guaranteed is the one where all vehicles on a stretch of road are standing still, with the engine off and the handbrake on. Any combined collision speed above 5 kph carries a risk of injury; above 30 kph potentially serious injury; and over 50 kph potential fatality. Much, much below the general speed limit for highways, whose very purpose is “rapid” transit.
As forewarned in my article (written well before these accidents were reported) the primary cause was more probably the speed of the line of traffic (too low), not the speed of the overtaking vehicle. The remedy lies in knowing why the queue was moving so slowly, and fixing that. All the accidents in the recent spate could have happened, and probably did happen, well within the speed limit.
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