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Whenever I travelled by matatu, it took me time to
settle on a seat for the journey. The big debate that
raced in my mind was the safest seat in case of an
accident.
I always calculated it from the type of vehicle it was
(14-seater, later 18-seater vs 29-seater), the amount
and type of exposed metal and the likelihood of
being in a head-on collision, a tailgating accident or a
rollover.
Another of my favourite activities was watching a
programme named Air Crash Investigation on the
National Geographic channel. The programme, which
was fascinating in a slightly morbid sense, detailed
how plane crashes — and even near-misses —were
investigated until the cause of the accident was
known. Many times, the cause of the accident was a
tiny mechanical part that failed, or pilot error that
stemmed from something as innocuous as arrogance
or sleepiness.
All this came back to me last week, after the latest of
the fatal Ntulele accidents. On Thursday, a matatu
was involved in a collision with a bus in Narok which
led to the deaths of nine people. This was just a few
metres, and a few months, from where a bus crash
had left more than 40 dead. A day earlier, the
Cabinet Secretary in charge of Transport and
Infrastructure, Michael Kamau, had launched an
initiative that would require all serious accidents to
be investigated.
The second Ntulele accident came too soon for the
Ministerial directive to have been implemented, but
it showed the potential, and limitations, of Mr
Kamau’s well-meaning initiative.
Kenya is one of the deadliest countries on which to
use a road. Motor vehicles are operated by people
who have no business being behind the wheel.
Obviously defective vehicles ply our roads, or are
used for the wrong purposes (motorcycles used to
ferry whole families, or cows; station wagons used as
14-seater passenger vehicles).
Pedestrians dash across busy highways expecting
that drivers will brake on time. Traffic policemen are
more concerned with bribes than with stopping
carnage, and public service operators treat the profit
motive as the ultimate motivation, all else be
damned.
Every time there is a serious road crash, much hand-
wringing ensues, followed by earnest, wrong-headed
pledges to finally do something about them. And
many of these directives — from presidents to
government ministers and police, are often utterly
inadequate. Even worse, certain areas are declared
“black spots”.
Bumps are erected after public outcry, and, most
ridiculous of all, prayers are held to “cleanse”
stretches of roads of “demons baying for more blood
which can only be sated by the sacrifice of a few
more humans”.
All these initiatives and directives fail at one core
level. There is very little reliable data on road use and
misuse, in Kenya. We do not know, to any useful
degree, what causes accidents. We cannot ascertain
whether particular makes of vehicles are prone to
accidents, and why. We do not know why people
cross roads at certain places, and thus determine
where to place footbridges.
We’re not sure why these footbridges, even when
they’re built at great cost, are shunned (except for
guesses about laziness and African peculiarities).
The new National Transport and Safety Authority will
succeed, or fail, on that one strategy. Lee Kinyanjui
and his team have a chance to change the face of
road safety, and bring down the terrible death and
injury toll, if they become obsessive about data-
driven action.
This will mean getting away from press-conferences
and proclamations, and investing in a wealth of
computing power and data-mining experts. It will
mean that every single traffic incident would have to
be investigated.
This may be a controversial recommendation, but
think: most traffic accidents in urban settings do not
lead to death or serious injury. Typically, even traffic
police recommend that watu wasikizane – the fender-
benders should reach informal agreement. But this
leads to very little actionable data on urban traffic,
which leads to bad road design and control.
Were data to be the key determining force in traffic
control in Kenya (Air Crash Investigation-style), we
would understand, to an unimpeachable degree,
what actually causes road accidents in Kenya, and
what mitigating measures to take to actually reduce
them and their severity (and not simply rely on gut-
feel or intuition).
It would instantly become obvious which vehicles,
roads, and types of road users are more prone to
mishap, and what to actually do about it.
Computing power and cost is coming down to a level
when we can actually install data collection devices
(black boxes) on every single vehicle on the road in
Kenya, and use the information generated to make
the roads less lethal.

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