Many years ago as a masters student in the United States, I needed to renew my student visa and in those days, you needed to apply for the visa outside of the country’s borders. I therefore had to drive 946 kilometres, from Washington DC where I was living to Montreal, Canada where I had booked my visa appointment. Driving in a northeasterly direction through New York State is about as stimulating as watching yellow paint dry on a concrete wall. The highways are well patrolled by State Troopers who are always looking out for speed offenders breaching the 65 miles per hour (105 km/h) speed limit, and you could be busted at anytime as they had a knack of hiding on embankments and behind grassy knolls on the highway. So I drove the rental car sedately until the Canadian border, where the speed limit changed to the metric system, and was set at 100 km/h. By this time I was ready to slit my wrists in boredom, noting with consternation the number of cars that zoomed past me at extremely high speeds. (To assist your supercilious judgment over my choices, I was young and foolish at that time so speed was the most tempting way to kill the boredom). Having nothing better to do than observe what I thought were brave, foolhardy souls, I realized that the drivers would suddenly drop their speeds at certain sections, and sure enough I’d see a police cruiser parked surreptitiously over a brow or under a bridge, prowling the highway for its traffic offending prey.
These daredevils had speed detector kits (illegal in the US but not banned in Canada at the time) and would therefore drop to within the speed limit in time to daintily saunter past the unsuspecting cops. Never one to let opportunity ceaselessly knock on my forehead, I latched onto the next daredevil, hugging his bumper for dear life and together we danced the speed detector waltz all the way to Montreal. I must have shaved off an hour on that trip, arriving breathless and exhilarated at having dodged not one but several police traps. On my way back, I hadn’t even left the Montreal city limits when I foolishly choose to follow what I thought was another speed detecting daredevil. It turned out that he didn’t have the detector. But this is the clincher: he got away while I got the much dreaded “wiiiiuuuuw” sound followed by the even more heart thumping red and white flashing lights in my rear view mirror. The Canadian cop was a gentleman. He got me to park my car on the side of the road, hop into the back of his Bat-mobile and drove me to an ATM machine at a nearby strip mall. I had to pay $250 Canadian dollars as a speeding fine. That was the entire salary I had earned in the month of June and July working as a research assistant for a professor in law school and, mercifully, I had just been paid the day before. I limped back to the Canadian border at 90 km/h and never looked back again. I’m still smarting from that traffic fine which completely changed my driving habits thereafter. This story came back to mind when I, and many Kenyans, woke up to the news of yet another mind boggling family decimation at a road accident in Salgaa some days ago.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Except we don’t seem to be doing anything, let alone over and over again at notorious accident black spots. We know our traffic police force have a penchant for enforcement, the kind of enforcement that misdirects on-the-spot penalties into non-government coffers. This may be the time to introduce quotas in our traffic department. Each traffic officer is given a target to raise a certain amount of money in the form of penalties from dangerous driving (all one has to do is stand beside any single Kenyan roadside for 3 minutes and he’ll be spoilt for choice, in fact he’ll probably bust his daily budget within an hour), driving without seatbelts, overlapping, overtaking on a continuous yellow line, driving without indicating and the mother of all mothers: driving above the speed limit. The income from the fines can and should be used to train the police to become 21st century law enforcement officials as well as provide the police with modern law enforcement equipment including patrol cars and on board computers linked to individual identification and motor vehicle national databases.
I did a little research and found the use of traffic ticket quotas in Australia and the Netherlands. However, in the United States where ticket quotas have been widely used in the past, a number of state legislatures have passed laws to remove the quotas as they are viewed to be exploitative of motorists. In Florida for example, the state legislature passed a law in July 2015 making traffic ticket quotas illegal. The law requires the police to submit reports to the state legislature if their traffic ticket revenues cover more than 33% of the costs of operating their agencies. The agencies may also be audited and face investigation by the state attorney general. But these are first world problems, in jurisdictions where law enforcement is credible and extremely visible.
It cannot be that we look at our own lives as mere transactions, transitory on this earth until extinguished desultorily. We have become completely inured to the rusty, twisted metal scraps that occupy pride of place on many of our highways, an attempted reminder by road safety authorities of the horrific outcomes in death and maiming. We see through these grim reminders the way we see past the drudgery that cakes the feet of our accident tired national psyche. Perhaps looking at prevention of loss of lives as a lucrative revenue source is the ethically challenging mindset shift that we need.