Michuki rules did not work

An upsurge in road accidents in Kenya has led to calls for the return of John Michuki to the Ministry of Transport. Motoring analysts however say that the Michuki rules did not work because they merely focused on punishing bus and matatu operators.

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Scores of people have died on Kenyan roads in recent weeks. Most of the accidents involve minibus taxis, popularly referred to as matatus. Other accidents involve long distance buses and trucks plying the roads between the port city of Mombasa and the interior.

Deaths from road accidents may surpass the 3,000 fatalities a year mark that was the norm before the Michuki rules of 2004. The rules were introduced by Kangema legislator, John Michuki, who was the Transport Minister at the time. The Michuki rules forced all commercial vehicle owners to install speed governors set at 80 kilometres per hour. On city roads, the speed limit was enforced at 50 kilometres per hour.

Carrying of standing passengers in city buses was banned. Meanwhile, the passenger capacity of matatus was reduced from 18 passengers to 13. In addition, crews of buses and matatus had to be vetted by police and receive a Certificate of Good Conduct before getting employment. Ex-convicts and school dropouts were immediately locked out of public transport business.

Michuki made it mandatory for bus and matatu crews to be in uniform and to have their pictures posted in the vehicle. So tough were the rules that matatu conductors could be jailed for rudeness!

After the rules were introduced in February 2004, there was an immediate reduction in road accidents and Kenyans felt that a new era of road safety had set in. However, the shortlived success of the Michuki rules came at a price.

Fares rose by at least 50% as bus and matatu operators raised money for speed governors, seatbelts and uniforms. Public transport operators were subjected stringent inspections and this, inevitably, added to operating expenses. At the same time, the reduction in carrying capacity meant lower income per trip, amidst rising costs occasioned by a tattered road network. In certain routes, fares almost doubled.

At least a third of public transport vehicles went out of business as owners could not afford the rapid implementation sought by the Michuki rules. Others decided to venture into school transport and car-hire business whose operations were not subjected to police harassment.

“In effect, what the Michuki rules did was to reduce the number of vehicles on the road while reducing the number of passengers in each vehicle,” explains a motoring analyst. “The immediate increase in fares forced people to cut down on travelling, meaning that each passenger was exposed to a lower risk.”

“Lets say, for example, that 5% of vehicles will be involved in an accident. What happened after February 2004 was that you had fewer vehicles, each vehicle carrying fewer passengers, and each passenger travelling less often. Therefore, even if the percentage rate of accidents was the same as before, the actual figures would be lower. That is to say, 5% of 30,000 vehicles will produce a lower figure than 5% of 40,000 vehicles.”

“This is what happened with the Michuki rules and Kenyans believed that the accident rate had gone down, which was not the case.”

By 2005, the high fares in the public transport industry had attracted massive private-sector investment. There was a sharp increase in the numbers of new public transport vehicles. Intense competition forced operators to reduce prices. By 2006, public transport fares were down to pre-2004 levels. Passengers began travelling more often.

With more vehicles on the road, and each passenger travelling more frequently, the actual road accident figures began rising.

Motoring analysts say that road accidents in Kenya are caused by a poor driving culture, badly designed and neglected roads and poor enforcement of existing traffic laws. Kenyan police are notorious for demanding bribes from motorists.

As matatu operators often say, why bother maintaining your vehicle when its cheaper to bribe the cops?

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Kenyans taxed in police crackdown

The Kenyan government has been criticized for using traffic crackdowns on commuter transport to collect hundreds of millions in the form of road fines.

According to public transport drivers, traffic police are arresting and fining them for such things as dusty windshields, faded bodywork and even frayed shirt collars!

The Kenya Police is in the midst of its notorious, “crackdowns” following public pressure to curb rampant road accidents on Kenyan roads. Road safety in Kenya is seriously compromised by poor enforcement of traffic laws, corruption and a crumbling road network. “Its not as though we don’t have enough traffic laws, but the laws are enforced arbitrarily,” says motoring writer Gavin Bennett. “The police can stop you for not having enough air pressure in your tyres while an overloaded bus belching black smoke is waved past you.”

The crackdowns are worsened by the tendency of the police to have them in the morning, during the commuter rush to work. Its common to find hundreds of passengers stranded at major intersections after being forced out of buses and matatus. Of course, the bus operators rarely refund the remainder of the fare to passengers when their vehicles are arrested. However, the effectiveness of the police crackdowns is in doubt as the “offending” vehicles can be seen back on the road in a matter of hours.

Passengers have been hauled into police cells for not wearing seatbelts in public transport vehicles. On any given day, Kenyan courts will be filled with thousands of commuters who will be fined anything between Kshs300 and Kshs500 (US$4.8 – $8). Just before the court hearings, police prosecutors will “advise” the incarcerated commuters to, plead guilty, pay the fine and go home. If you plead “not guilty,” the case could drag on indefinitely with little possibility of an acquittal.

Traffic crackdowns on commuter transport do not happen in the evenings because Kenyan law does not allow police to detain people over-night for traffic offences. For the same reason, crackdowns are rarely done during weekends or public holidays because courts do not open on those days. However, weekday mornings are ideal because justice can be dispensed by mid-afternoon.

By its own admission, the Kenya government collects almost Kshs500 million each year from minor traffic offences. Public transport operators say its a scam to increase government revenue. And from the conduct of the Kenya police and the judiciary, these allegations may just be correct.

Ongoing police crackdowns on passenger transport vehicles across Kenya is worsening an inefficient commuter transport system, resulting in delays and short tempers.