No matter what the vantage point Kenya is a pretty dark place. Look at a satellite picture of Kenya at night and you will see a bit of light here and there but nowhere near the Christmas tree image of a similar picture taken over North America or Europe.
Come to the ground and apart from a few streets in Nairobi and occasional lonely single giant floodlights in certain estates, the rest of the country is dark, throughout the night. This is because for those who live in rural areas the sun is the major source of light energy.
The only problem is that every evening the sun goes away. So if you are forced to travel after dark you have to carry your own light source.
If you happen to be walking, it better be for a very short distance, in the company of people you know well, otherwise your life is at risk to ‘insecurity’. If you happen to be travelling by car, then you might be a little safer but not by much.
We have, registered in Kenya, more than one million vehicles. Yet out of the 160,000km of road less than 10 per cent is tarmacked.
About half the cars registered are passenger cars bought to ride on the 10 per cent of originally tarmacked roads. That explains the traffic jams everywhere, including nowadays, on roads such as the Naivasha-Nairobi highway.
There is a further constraint to road use, that is, at night they become dangerous.
This is a worldwide problem. Even in the USA, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly half of all traffic-related fatalities occur in the dark, despite only 25 per cent of traffic travelling at night.
We are only just beginning to pay attention to road safety and the problem here is much worse because of the state of the infrastructure, an African aversion to maintenance, related corruption and a love for anything that looks new but is not necessarily so.
After the brakes, the lights of a car are its most important safety feature. Over the last decade or so car development has focused heavily on making cars safer. The problem for Kenya is that the typical ‘new’ car, corruption aside, is already eight years old.
Given the time lag for technology and ideas to be incorporated into a product it means that what you have in your ‘new’ car in terms of safety will be at a minimum at least 10-15 years old. If you car is a few years old then we are talking about technology of a generation ago.
For comparison, imagine if we were today importing computers and cell phones of 20 years ago and labelling them new. We might laugh at the absurdity, but the modern car today has considerable computing power and is no longer a mechanical machine only. Yet when it comes to our road safety rules and conduct, we behave as if the car has just been invented.
The headlamp has been a part of cars since inception. But it was not until 1912 that Cadillac switched away from acetylene lighting to electrical lighting. In 1915, lights that could dip were invented.
Initially you had to step out of the car and adjust the beam manually, but by 1924, the first modern light bulb unit with both low and high beam had been invented. Many people driving at night do not know this.
These basic technologies have been improved upon with ever more efficient and powerful light beams so that today there really should be no excuse to have a vehicle with poor lighting. Road safety policy should encourage drivers and car owners to invest in what is already available to improve on safety.
Yet the focus on of the law is elsewhere. For example, the Traffic Amendment Act, 2012, requires all licensed drivers to undergo mandatory eye tests every three years and present a medical practitioner’s report to KRA when applying for the renewal of the license. Anyone who fails to comply with this requirement will be disqualified from holding a driving license for a period not exceeding three years.
We have just over 8,000 doctors in this country. The Kenya Revenue Authority will now have to employ some to vet the eye test reports they will receive in their thousands.
What will the reports say? That the eyesight of every Kenyan driver is perfect, except those that are not. The latter group will pay extra. After all, short or long-sightedness is easily corrected. Maybe not.
With a population average age of 19 years, the visual acuity of the average driver cannot be the major problem when it comes to road safety. It is more an issue of how enlightened we want to be.
Whether we want to have health policies that are research evidence-based? The question is what can you see when there is no light?