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Reflections on our roads and their users

There’s nothing like a quiet drive to aid the reflection process. Or so I thought. I embarked on a family trip to the great mountain in the heart of our country recently, and was able to think a little about the land we live in.

My first set of thoughts were about our drivers. These were stimulated by a man in a blue vehicle whom I will call Mr Pea Brain. Mr Pea Brain was a man in a hurry. He thought he needed to get to his destination way ahead of others whose time was less important.

Mr Pea Brain drove his car at high speed very close behind mine, and attempted to overtake twice. He was thwarted by oncoming traffic both times, and fell back behind me. Losing patience, he finally overtook me on a blind turn, having no idea what was around the corner. A large truck loomed before him suddenly, and he escaped certain death by millimetres.

You might imagine that would be enough to tame Mr Pea Brain and convince him to go slow on the kamikaze mission. Not at all. I observed Mr Pea Brain repeating his moronic feats several more times, each time placing himself and many others in mortal danger.

Now, you might imagine that Mr Pea Brain is a man of modest social standing, a deranged matatu driver, perhaps. Not at all: his blue car was a new Mercedes. What gave me most pause was the thought that off the road he might be a leader and decision-maker of sorts, a mover and shaker, a role model and exemplar. And perhaps doing all that with a brain, quite evidently, the size of a pea.

All that insane risk-taking, you see, doesn’t actually get you anywhere. All the cars on the road doing similar speeds tend to arrive at the same destination at approximately the same time. This is because the average speed achieved depends on the volume of traffic and the condition of the road, and those factors are the same for all. So with all his crazy weaving and heaving, Mr Merc Pea Brain might arrive, say, 15 minutes ahead of the driver who maintains a steady speed and does not take any dangerous risks.

Clearly we are not going to get anywhere by appealing to the higher thought processes of Mr Pea Brain, because he does not have any. But in a sane society he and his ilk would be contained by law enforcement: they would be removed from the roads and prevented from posing the daily danger to society that they do.

Which brings me to the second set of reflections, concerning our law enforcers. Between Nairobi and Mt Kenya I probably encountered no fewer than a dozen police roadblocks. Did even one of them notice Mr Pea Brain and try to stop him, as the biggest danger on the road that day? Not at all. The guardians of the law are way too busy extracting road rents from public service vehicles, and ensuring that mild-mannered families are hassled about first-aid kits and reflectors, to worry about anything as trivial as a life-threatening lunatic.

We’ve covered drivers and regulators, now let’s move on to a third area: the road itself. A year ago I drove to the same mountain, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Kenyan rarity, a smooth road all the way to the destination. A year later, the section around Sagana is already pockmarked with potholes. Perhaps it rained a little in the interim; as we know, that is usually enough to put paid to our roads.

But I did observe Chinese contractors busy at work on the new, much-heralded Thika Road highway, even on a Sunday, and hoped against hope that these people would give us a road that lasts 30 or 40 years without needing major maintenance, the standard enjoyed by most countries. That is a little-known fact in Kenya, with our culture of shoddy roads laid by shadowy contractors approved by shady officials – with annual patching up.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking: what exactly are we going to do with our new highways when they finally appear? What is the point of a multi-carriageway if you have done nothing about the behaviour of road-users? If the average driver remains as moronic as Mr Pea Brain what exactly will we have achieved by giving him a faster road to drive on? And if basic lane discipline – such as driving on the left – remains a mystery to Kenyans, what is the point of adding more lanes? Three idiots hogging all three lanes at similar speeds can cause a jam from the mountain to the capital.

A footnote: during the return leg of this journey it rained heavily. As a result, there was not a single police roadblock anywhere on the highway. Our policemen also make hay only when the sun shines.

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  • Dickie Rehal

    Dear Sunny,

    An observation made over time; why is it that when we [non law abiding Kenyans] arrive in many a foreign land, we tend to quickly abide by the rules set there, and well in advance for that matter? Is it that the culture [or lack of it] that is responsible for this moronic behavior in the country we call our own? And who is suppose to enforce this culture when the custodians are equally admonishing it? No prizes for guessing, I guess!

  • Solomon

    Sunny,

    Mr. Merc Pea Brain is quite a common character on our roads, when he is not driving recklessly you will notice him and his passengers throwing plastic bags, banana peels, plastic cup and bottles and the like out the windows, without regard to other motorists as well as the environment.
    However, Mr. Pea Brain need not be a leader or a man of great social standing (well at least going by the definitions of these words) so how did he acquire his sleek car?
    “That is a little-known fact in Kenya, with our culture of shoddy roads laid by shadowy contractors approved by shady officials” – driving blue Mercedes’ with the brain the size of a pea.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article.

  • Dickie:

    A good observation. I have asked before: why were Kenyans in diaspora not engaged in tribal warfare in January 2008?

    Why do Kenyans in Europe ensure all indicator lights and brake lights are working, but here see nothing wrong in driving at night without even headlights?

    The answer is in rules and norms. Out there you can’t get away with anything like that, here you routinely can. Notice how even expats from Europe start driving like matatu drivers when they’ve been here a a year or two. People conform to the rules and norms of the society around them.

    Rules are up to rule enforcers, who are the primary rule breakers in this country. But norms are down to each one of us.

  • Solomon:

    Mr Pea Brain is certainly a ubiquitous creature: I only highlighted one but encountered a dozen like him on that trip.

    Mocking them is one way of fighting them. We must make them feel small and ridiculous, not big and important.

  • I encountered one such creature last evening, overtaking two vehicles in a road, and yes they were all going to roughly the same final destination – at most (s)he gained 10 seconds.

  • Josiah

    Indeed! There is hardly any gain in time, but the pea brains happily dice with death, for themselves and others.

  • Ssembonge

    If you notice the driver behind you is eager to overtake you, the best thing to do is to slow down and give them way rather than putting your family in harms way between the said driver and oncoming traffic.

    Imagine what would have happened if another car suddenly appeared at the blind spot and you get caught up in an accident. It would have mattered less that you were right when you find yourselves in hospital.

    I can’t tell you how many people have died in America after being hit by a car that has jumped a red light. Because their light was green they thought they had the right of way and all the other cars will stop at the red light.

    When dealing with rogue drivers, common sense rather traffic rules will prevent you from being caught up in an accident.

  • Ssembonge:

    I agree completely: no use arguing with people with brains the size of a pea! Look after yourself.

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