Yet again, over 15 people died Tuesday in multiple crashes at the notorious Sachangwan blackspot on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway in Kenya.
Dozens were also injured in one of the most deadly spots on Kenya’s roads. Kenya is not alone. In most of Africa, road accidents today kill several times more people than armed conflict. For several structural reasons, when accidents happen, the death toll is often horrific.
Even if the roads were better, and the traffic cops honest, most drivers are weapons of mass destruction.
It is easy to despair, but perhaps we shouldn’t. Though most of Africa isn’t considered to be technologically advanced, perhaps it is the place that most needs self drive cars. Self drive cars would take one of the most dangerous killers, the African driver, off the roads.
Consider this; traffic accidents are not just accidents. They are deeply political, and are about class.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) keeps a close eye, and frequently issues very alarmed report about deaths in traffic accidents.
It notes, for example, that 90 per cent of the world’s fatalities on the roads occur in low- and middle-income countries, even though these countries have approximately 54 per cent of the world’s vehicles. Also, that road traffic injury death rates are highest in the African region.
Put loosely, poorer people are more likely to die or be injured in road accidents than the richer folk. So road safety is a pro-poor measure.
Secondly, that road traffic crashes cost most countries three per cent of their gross domestic product. They steal our wealth.
People aged between 15 and 44 years account for 48 per cent of global road traffic deaths. So traffic deaths probably deny us the services of our future leaders, more than election fraud.
There is a gender angle too. According to WHO, from a young age, males are more likely to be involved in road traffic crashes than females. “About 73 per cent of all road traffic deaths occur among young males under the age of 25 years who are almost 3 times as likely to be killed in a road traffic crash as young females”, it says.
So apart from the tragedy of the deaths, traffic accidents are killing off prospective husbands, and for the leaders who need policemen to keep law and order, break up opposition riots and soldiers to fight anti-government rebels, ending the slaughter on our roads is a national security matter.
Self drive cars will still have accidents, but it is possible by taking crazy and inconsiderate out of the equation, we could reduce deaths on our roads by up to 90 per cent.
This also offers the possibility to deal better with the menace of potholes. For Africa’s purposes, some of the public transport self drive buses could be built like those Mars vehicles, which are better navigated automatically. They would go over potholes, instead of around them – one of the major causes of accidents.
It would also help deal with the problem of corrupt traffic cops. The self drive car wouldn’t be able to bribe a cop. Or rather, a traffic cop wouldn’t be able to shake it down.
In much the same spirit, a few days ago, there was a report that China had introduced its first series of robot police stations, where you go and key in or vocalise your problem 24/7 and you get automated services. They are showing us the way.
Self drive cars could have the effect mobile phones had in Africa. Because the intermediary services in a modern economy – banks, fixed lines, internet, transport, and so on – were woefully inadequate, the mobile phone became all those things, and catapulted us years ahead.
Equally, right now, the things go with a modern road system – good roads, traffic signs, honest traffic police, thoughtful and technologically aware drivers, sober pedestrians at night – are in short supply in most of our nations. Let us leapfrog as we did with the mobile phone. Take all the middle men/women and institutions out of the way, and put matters in the hands of computers and other forms of artificial intelligence on wheels.
If the number of people who die on our roads in a year were killed in post-election violence, we would call in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet we don’t. It’s time to do something radical.