Kenya’s Trouble With Taxis

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In East Africa, a new initiative is empowering passengers to demand a safe ride.

NAIROBI, Kenya — On a sunny afternoon in Nairobi, 37-year-old Francis Raymond Adika climbs into the front seat of a matatu, or public transit van, and slides next to the driver.

“I lost my brother in an accident,” says Adika. On August 15, 2001, a matatu was speeding down the wrong side of a two-lane road in Nairobi trying to pass traffic. When it swerved back into the correct lane it slammed headfirst into a truck. Adika discovered his brother’s body in the Nairobi morgue. He was 19, just days away from his high school graduation.

A Jesuit missionary who travels extensively across Africa, Adika says it isn’t just in Kenya where people lose their lives to reckless driving. “I lived in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia – the carnage was just the same.”

Each year, 1.24 million people die in road accidents worldwide. By 2030 that number is expected to triple to 3.6 million, making road deaths the fifth-largest cause of death in the developing world – worse than AIDS or even malaria, according to the World Health Organization. Africa is the hardest hit, with 26 road deaths for every 100,000 people – nearly 50 percent above the global average.

But a series of scientifically rigorous, randomized control studies by Georgetown University may have found a simple way to dramatically reduce deaths on East African roads. By placing stickers inside buses and matatus that encouraged passengers to tell their driver to slow down, researchers discovered that the number of insurance claims fell by half for long-distance vehicles and by one-third overall.

“The effect of the stickers was equivalent to avoiding 140 accidents and saving 55 lives per year,” according to Georgetown’s findings on the initiative, which it named Zusha! – Swahili for protest. And that was just a limited trial.

Kenya’s insurance companies are placing Zusha! stickers in tens of thousands of matatus. (JACOB KUSHNER)


Additional studies are now underway to see if similar results can be achieved in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda. If successful, reducing road deaths may turn out to be as simple as a sticker. It’s also low-cost: Georgetown estimates the sticker program costs just $10 to $45 for each year of life that it saves.

The U.S. Agency for International Development-funded studies are now being adopted by Kenya’s transportation safety administration and one of Kenya’s largest automobile insurance companies, which are placing Zusha! stickers in tens of thousands of matatus and buses with messages like “You have the power to slow down a reckless driver!”

East African governments have long resisted attempts to reform their driving cultures. In Kenya, traffic police and government officials have been blamed for using bribes as an alternative to enforcing the law. In September, Kenyan Police fired live ammunition to disperse university students who were protesting corruption and unsafe conditions on Nairobi roads.

Students have good reason to be concerned: In Africa, road accidents are the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 29 and the second-leading cause for people 5 to 14.

There are many factors that make East Africa’s roads so dangerous. One is poor driver training.

Geoffrey Nyambane, who oversees Georgetown’s research office in Kenya, recalled how when he went to take a driving test to get his license, “I got into the car, switched it on and I was told, ‘OK you are done – get out.” The government examiner passed him without even bothering to watch him drive.

“Imagine that!,” says Nyambane. “It’s the level of impunity that we have.”

That gets to the second factor affecting road safety. “Corruption – it’s a reality,” Nyambane says. “You get stopped by cops, you give them 100 (shillings), and you drive on.” In 2004, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki acknowledged that traffic accidents are often the result of corruption. If you can avoid a punishment by simply paying a bribe, there’s little incentive to follow the rules.


“That’s where Zusha! comes in,” says Nyambane. “If a vehicle is not being driven well, we need people to speak up about it.”

Adika, who lost his brother to reckless driving, couldn’t agree more. “If you don’t speak up, you die,” he says. “That’s why I like sitting here next to the driver – so I can tell him.” Adika says he even chooses which matatus he takes based on the driver’s appearance. He prefers mature, quiet drivers over energetic younger ones.

His driver this particular afternoon is Stanley Mburu, a bald, middle-aged man with a calm demeanor. Mburu says he’s been chauffeuring passengers across Nairobi for nearly two decades.

“The customer must shout when you are doing bad things. It is important,” says Mburu. But he admits that many drivers get angry when passengers lecture them about their driving. Still, he says Zusha!’s stickers are a good idea. When the company that insures Mburu’s vehicle gave him some Zusha! stickers last year, Mburu placed them above the windows where passengers can easily see them.

In order to get all the different stakeholders – drivers, vehicle owners, insurance agents – to buy into the program, Zusha! and the insurance company it’s partnering with are using not punishments, but incentives: Each week, vehicles are randomly inspected to see if their Zusha! stickers are visible. If they are, the driver, the insurance agent, and the vehicle owner each win a 5,000 shilling prize – about $50. It’s a system shown to be effective by the Georgetown studies. Mburu says he knows of one driver-owner team that already won.

There’s also a natural incentive for insurance companies to urge their customers to use the stickers.

“Apart from just the mindless waste of life and all the pain and suffering, for us, the fewer accidents that happen, the better for the bottom line,” says Terry Wijenje. She’s the director of DirectLine Assurance, one of Kenya’s largest automobile insurance companies and Zusha!’s primary partner in Kenya.

Wijenje says Zusha!’s stickers alone won’t solve East Africa’s driving danger – there are still bad roads and bad police. But she says that anecdotally they already seem to be making a difference by reducing the number of accident claims that her company must reimburse. Already stickers have been placed in 15,600 vehicles insured by DirectLine.

Still, Zusha! will have to adapt its model if it hopes to achieve similar success in other African countries. In Uganda, political parties are recognized by their color – yellow, black, red. That means Zusha! will have to avoid using those colors in their stickers so as not to cause trouble.

Another adaptation: In Kenya, some of the stickers show images of injured or dead bodies on the road, a tactic that studies showed motivate passengers to speak up. But in Rwanda such images are frowned upon because they could invoke memories of the country’s 1994 genocide.

There are implementation challenges, too. In Tanzania, insurance claims aren’t digitized, so Georgetown employees must travel to each region to collect hard-copy police records in order to measure the number of accidents over time.

As his matatu winds its way through the western outskirts of Nairobi, Adika lamented government officials’ hesitancy toward reform. “It’s an attitude,” says Adika. “Impunity is still very ripe on our roads.”

Still, he doesn’t give up trying to change that. Since his brother’s death, Adika says he regularly scolds drivers for what Kenyans call overspeeding – not just speeding, which is normal, but speeding too much.

“It’s not even an accident!” says Adika of the irresponsible driving he encounters on his daily commute. “These are things that can be avoided.”

©Alleastafrica & USA News

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