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November 22, 2018

Developing A Safety Culture

DEADLY: The rising cases of road accidents in Kenya, has since led to a ban on night travel for PSVs by the government. Photo Njenga Gicheha
DEADLY: The rising cases of road accidents in Kenya, has since led to a ban on night travel for PSVs by the government. Photo Njenga Gicheha

Speed kills. We know that for a fact. People who believe speed to be the cause of road traffic crashes do the obvious.

They slow traffic down at all costs. Across the country there are bumps galore of all kinds from well built 60 km/hour speed humps to hellish monstrosities of compacted soil and sharp rocks designed to ruin the underbelly of your car so that you never return to the area again.

In between are bumps that take you back to standard one in that you have to count one, two, three, four, three, two and one. Where bumps are not enough, people are put to wave carrots, beetroots, chickens in you face. Anything to distract your attention from putting the foot down on the accelerator pedal. The word ‘challenge’ is an African word.

But if speed was the only cause of crashes then airplanes would be very unsafe. Planes move quickly.

A commercial jetliner does 0-60 km/hour in less than 6 seconds on its way to a cruising speed of about 800 km/hour, ten times the maximum speed allowed for a commercial vehicle on the ground. Yet airline safety is extremely good.

According to one newspaper a traveller could fly every day for 123,000 years and still be safe. In 2012, across the entire world less than 500 persons were killed in airplane crashes.

Two incidents a crash at Islamabad airport Pakistan and another at Lagos airport, Nigeria accounted for three-quarters of the fatalities.

In all, the passenger death rate over the last decade was about one per 3.7 million passengers carried. Where airplane accidents occur gives some indication of the problem that road users face.

Airplane crashes occur when they are behaving like cars, that is, at take off and landing and something goes wrong and they have to stop very quickly.

Given the speeds at which planes operate the potential for disaster are much higher. However the air industry as a whole has a dedicated focus on safety, which sadly is lacking in our road culture. The key word there is that it is the whole industry, not just the government or a segment of the industry that is concerned.

Safety is “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury”.

That definition is an encompassing one that means that everyone who is involved in the process is conscious of danger and works to prevent risks from materializing.

If we look at road crashes as a whole, a number of factors contribute to the risk of having a collision including; including vehicle design, speed of operation, road design, road environment, the driver skill or lack of, and driver behaviour and or discipline.

Across the world there have been major improvement in vehicle design, so we are left with the road design, road environment, the driver and speed of operations as the major issues to deal with locally.

Road designs tend to be a fairly permanent feature once a road is built. Corruption is the major variable in ensuring a good or a bad road exists. No local government has the will to remove voters from dangling carrots and yoghurt at passing by vehicles.

Advertising wares on a billboard might have been one way to target potential buyers but we now know that billboards are dangerous and can shoot back.

Better to let people risk their lives in the way they are accustomed to. What then remains that can be influenced are the speed of operations and the driver.

Current strategy is to use technology to control the speed of operations; the use of speed governors is one such measure. While that may curb overspeeding – moving too fast at the wrong time, it is an expensive measure that involves only a segment of those concerned with road safety, the driver, the owner and the government.

How am I as a passenger or other road user to ensure that the vehicle that should have a speed governor has one? It becomes a very technical issue that should be decided at a level that is not really for public consumption. To be a passenger on a plane you really do not need to know what type of engine specification the plane has.

What you are more concerned about is the behaviour of the crew that will fly you.

Just like plane crashes, the majority of road traffic crashes are caused by human error. For airlines safety is about accumulating knowledge about risk and converting that knowledge into practice. For example trainee pilots are chosen on the basis of good communication skills, leadership potential, ability to work in a team and low risk-taking.

Think about your average matatu or bus owner. What criteria do they use? What is the training for a public service vehicle driver?

In a plane, passengers go through safety checks before the plan takes off. In Kenya the safety check is done at the roadside and involves only the police and the vehicle driver. Is it any wonder we are cynical about road safety?

Sustainable road safety involves letting everyone know the evidence that enlightens decisions and keeping the public informed on improvements made. That way a safety culture develops.

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