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Driving in Kenya Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
May 2, 2004
By MARC LACEY
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
"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.
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
"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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