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NYTimes.com Article: Driving in Kenya Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

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    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2004
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      Driving in Kenya Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

      May 2, 2004

      NAIROBI, Kenya, April 26 - Why did the chicken cross the
      road in Kenya? Who knows? But they do so with monotonous
      regularity, with a squawk, a thud and a flurry of feathers
      on the windshield, contributing to the country's reputation
      as one of the most dangerous places to drive in the world.

      Chickens are by no means the most dangerous obstruction
      found on Kenyan roadways. There are also, to name but a
      few, donkeys, pushcarts, rickety bicycles loaded to the
      hilt and barefoot children in full sprint. Put all that
      together with speeding motor vehicles and the result is a
      terrifying obstacle course for the uninitiated.

      In Kenya, fast-moving tractor-trailers surge straight at
      oncoming cars, forcing them to the shoulder. Minibuses dart
      back and forth in traffic, with the limbs of passengers
      jutting out of open windows and doors. Bicyclists cling to
      any back bumper they can grab for a free ride.

      Not surprisingly, the chaos regularly ends badly. Kenya
      estimates that it loses about 2,600 people a year to road
      accidents, a rate of just over 55 deaths per 10,000 motor
      vehicles, which is alarmingly high for a country with a
      population of 32 million. By comparison, the United States
      has a rate of just over 2 deaths per 10,000 motor vehicles.
      The thousands of Kenyans who are maimed on the roads fill
      hospital beds that are needed for other patients, officials
      say, and sap some $76 million from the country's struggling

      Increasingly, however, Kenyans have begun calling for an
      end to the carnage. Traffic safety is becoming the fad,
      with public education campaigns urging speeders to let up
      on the gas and with lawmakers trying to impose a few

      Talking on cellphones while driving is now banned in Kenya,
      although that did not stop one hurried caller from swerving
      around a pedestrian at full speed the other day.

      Of all the voices urging drivers to slow down, none is more
      persuasive than that of Mary Mwangangi, the traffic
      commandant of Kenya's Police Department and one of the most
      vocal advocates for road safety.

      "I want to see road safety taken as seriously as AIDS,"
      Mrs. Mwangangi said. "It kills just like AIDS and malaria
      and tuberculosis. We ought to be talking about road safety
      just as much and teaching children about it. We ought to be
      fighting it just like those diseases."

      Road safety is more than a professional issue for Mrs.
      Mwangangi. She denounces unsafe roads from a wheelchair. A
      traffic accident put her there.

      "I used to talk about road safety but I didn't feel it,"
      she said. "Now my body aches. When you're involved in one,
      it changes everything. Since my accident, road safety has
      become the most important issue to me."

      It was a head-on collision in March 2003 between Mrs.
      Mwangangi's police vehicle and a speeding truck that opened
      her eyes. She usually wears a seat belt, she said, a habit
      she picked up while working for six years at the Kenyan
      Embassy in Washington. But she did not have it on at the
      time of impact. Mrs. Mwangangi hit the dashboard hard.

      She broke both legs and both arms in the crash. She now
      attends regular physical therapy sessions and is slowly
      healing. She dreams that she will walk again. As for
      driving, she is not certain she wants to get back behind
      the wheel.

      "If I drive again, I'm going to be a very frightened
      driver," she said. "Even now, when I'm in the car, I keep
      telling my husband, 'Watch that vehicle! Watch that one!' I
      have a phobia now."

      But she also has a passion. She spoke at a recent rally in
      Uhuru Park here, using her personal story to urge others to
      slow down and buckle up. "I would probably have suffered
      less severe injuries if only I had my seat belt on," she
      said at the event, sponsored by the World Health

      Although she is still on disability leave, Mrs. Mwangangi
      said in a recent interview that her mind remained hard at
      work. She wants money for more radar detectors and
      Breathalyzers, which are in short supply. She wants Kenyans
      to understand the meaning of jaywalking. She wants road
      safety to become as much a part of the educational
      curriculum as AIDS prevention.

      The task that she and others have taken on is monumental.

      Across Africa, babies still crawl on dashboards and bus
      drivers accelerate on turns. The roads are still a
      hodgepodge of divots, holes, ridges and bumps. And those
      are the portions that are paved with asphalt.

      Kenya's government has begun an overhaul of the road
      network, about half of which it estimates is in need of
      urgent attention. Corrupt contractors wasted huge sums in
      the past. What looked like shiny new roads that would last
      for decades were really mirages. Potholes appeared at the
      first rains. Trucks sank into the substandard asphalt.

      Light-fingered Kenyans have exacerbated the problem by
      stealing road signs. Wooden ones are used as firewood,
      metal ones are twisted into grills. "We need to teach
      people that stealing the signs is a serious offense," Mrs.
      Mwangangi said.

      The babies on the dashboards and the toddlers with their
      heads out the windows - that is what riles Dr. Sidney
      Nesbitt, a pediatrician who is one of the founders of an
      organization called Child Road Safety Kenya.

      He has had to convince some colleagues that road safety is
      as pressing a health concern as diarrhea, malaria and
      malnutrition. All he had to do was look at some of the
      emergency cases that come to his office to know he was on
      the right track.

      "We've had one child thrown through the windshield," he
      said. "We had another who fell out the door and the father
      just drove over him."

      The government of President Mwai Kibaki, who himself was
      severely injured in a traffic accident during his 2002
      campaign, has begun taming the biggest threat to Kenya's
      roads. John Michuki, the transportation minister, issued a
      decree requiring the commuter minibuses that operate here -
      usually with reckless abandon - to install seatbelts as
      well as devices that limit their speed to about 50 miles
      per hour.

      "We're moving in the right direction," said Naftali Obiri,
      58, a retired bureaucrat who endorses the crackdown on the
      commuter vans. "You used to see passengers hanging out the
      door. Not anymore."

      He was speaking from Kenyatta National Hospital, where he
      was nursing wounds that he suffered in a traffic accident.



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