An old surgical adage goes, ‘A good surgeon knows how to operate, a better one when to operate and the best one when not to operate.’ On the road, the best drivers know when to give way and when to stop. Put simply, knowledge comes hand in glove with responsibility and judgment. Of the 1.2 million annual road deaths worldwide, 70% occur in developing countries, which host only one third of the world’s vehicles. It is an unsettling normal that, like a sad annual target, over 3,000 lives will have been lost by year-close in Kenya. In the process, another 15,000 are maimed to various extents. Majority are productive young citizens in their prime and the so-called vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Occasionally (which is frequent), a bus swallows 40 citizens in one gulp and triggers knee jerks all over for a while before ‘normalcy’ returns. These losses transcend just the deaths; families are left destitute, children orphaned, and many other lives turned topsy-turvy. The overall toll on the economy and society is far-reaching and ought to be a call for not just concern but systematic targeted action.
In the coming years, the WHO predicts road fatalities to account for the third leading cause of death in developing countries by 2020. Growing populations and economies, urbanization, increasing vehicular traffic and inadequate infrastructure, systems and policies will all contribute to the carnage. This knowledge, rather than be reason for despair and prayers to God for protection, needs to be a tool for preparation. Like anything else that works well, road safety is a system of deliberate actions by definite actors in concert to a common goal. Within this system, the fellow behind the wheel takes the lead when it comes to making a difference. Over 90% of all accidents on the road are a result of poor/lack of driver judgment and therein lays the problem in road safety. Punitive laws and fines may deter poor road ethics but laws unto themselves do not make a people. Rather than emphasize fines, bans and arrests, it is better to lay focus on policies that would make drivers more knowledgeable, courteous and skillful. Needless to add, drivers operate machinery on roads. These two other components (vehicle and road conditions) must also be addressed. For this discourse however, we focus on the driver as the primary determinant.
There are three critical ingredients of the safe driver: cognitive skills, social skills and physical ability. None is more valuable than the other is but the first determines how much of the rest a driver would muster and how well they would deploy all the skills. These skills develop from raw knowledge, past experience and a baseline cognitive ability. Driving schools only teach the basics of safe driving; the raw knowledge of law and common courtesy required on the road. However, the skill of safe driving is acquired by experience through the deliberate application of all the three ingredients mentioned above.
A driver’s cognitive skills inform their understanding of their ability, the condition and performance of their vehicle, the applicable road regulations and the prevailing road conditions. By merely getting a vehicle on to the road, the driver ought to be certain already of the vehicle’s service condition for its purpose and their ability to operate it safely. Whether the road is unfamiliar, unmarked, dark, narrow, potholed or otherwise, common sense dictates the driver must judge what speed is safe for their ability, vehicle and laws. Perhaps the most important cognitive skill in driving is the perception of an accurate temporal-spatial awareness and acting on it appropriately. Safe drivers are aware of what is around them at all times. They look out for other road users on the sides, from the rear and from afront in relation to their position and speed. They also keep an eye their own vehicle’s instrument panel for their current performance and aberrations from the normal. They constantly attempt to predict the actions of other roads users and prepare for them. Even though 90% of all driving stimuli are visual, hearing, smell and vibratory senses all contribute to the safe driver’s awareness. To do all these requires utmost concentration and alertness behind the wheel and a measure of intelligence.
Alcohol consumption before/during driving is outlawed primarily because it numbs all these senses and therefore impairs our judgment and reaction time. Physical fatigue and sleep deprivation have an almost similar effect. However, other numbing factors are less apparent. Benign activities like chatting with your passenger, changing the CD, tuning the radio, using your cell phone, adjusting the air-con and fixating on scenes outside can distract from the task of driving and lead to fatal consequences. Research shows that if drivers involved in accidents had an extra second to act, 80% of accidents would be averted. It is in the split second of inattention that accidents occur.
The second ingredient in the bag of safe drivers is social skills. As a matter of courtesy and safety, drivers are taught to give way whenever it is safe to do so. In some instances, courtesy is actually a law unto itself. The green traffic light for instance does not symbolize a right to proceed at all costs, but rather an indication to proceed if safe to do so. The zebra crossing demands that one lowers their speed even when they do not spot any pedestrians while the stop sign/red light demands a stop even in the absence of other traffic. Courtesy means a driver should not tailgate, accelerate when being overtaken or misuse their lights or horn to intimidate other road users. Safe courteous drivers do not surprise other road users by their actions, they appropriately indicate their intentions to turn, stop or overtake. They pull over from the road when they anticipate a fault or need to stop and alert other road users of the same. They make sure they are visible on the road at all times: fog, rain, dust, dusk, dawn or night by using the right lights. They do not blind oncoming drivers neither do they hog the road to themselves on a two-way.
The last component, physical ability, is rather obvious. One must be able to physical reach the vehicles controls and manipulate them appropriately. A comfortable well-positioned seat, well-padded pedals, the gear lever, instrument panel and location and operation of other controls contribute to the safety of any driver. Further, proper eyesight, hearing, smell and touch are all valuable to operate a vehicle safely. Children are barred from driving partly because of their physical handicap. Equally, persons with disabilities must have specially kitted vehicles and may actually not operate certain heavy machinery that require more physical strain and dexterity. Nevertheless, reach and operation of the controls is only safe in normal driving circumstances. Emergencies and special situations demand a different type of physical ability and co-ordination. This has to be learnt separately and practiced over time. An intelligent driver would not bring formula antics or emergency-vehicle (ambulance, police, fire) maneuvers onto the public road in their stock vehicle.
With all the three ingredients in place, a safe driver – like a safe surgeon – knows when to proceed and when not to. He knows what skills to deploy for what conditions. Advances in technology have solved some of the issues. Modern cars have automatic headlights, daylights, turn signals, anti-collision systems, lane detectors and a retinue of other gizmos that enhance safety with little or no driver input. Like trains, driver-less cars are already on the roads and seem to cause significantly less accidents than their human driven counterparts do. As a primarily used-car market, most Kenyan vehicles are roughly 5-10 years behind current technology. Regardless, the responsibility still rests on the driver to appraise their skill, vehicle and road for accurate and appropriate decisions behind the wheel.
Most drivers have the necessary physical ability and coordination for a safe trip but courtesy is sorely lacking. To a debatable extent, some drivers either do not exercise their cognitive skills or simply lack them. The work of any driver behind the wheel can be reduced to four functions: to constantly identify potential dangers, predict how they would occur, decide what to do if and when they occur and execute sensible mitigating measures.
It took the developed countries about 40 years to lower their road fatalities from rates similar to Kenya’s today (60 deaths/10 000 vehicles) to an average of 2 deaths per 10 000 vehicles. We do not have that kind of time in our hands. Besides, the advances in technology and research and experiences in developed countries mean that what works is now well known. As for drivers, the responsibility for road safety lies squarely in our hands (and feet). I find it irreconcilable that barely literate persons can acquire driver’s licenses and be expected to deploy these faculties in a sensible and coordinated manner. People who could barely pay attention for 10 minutes in a primary school class and subsequently dropped out because of the mental strain can pay bribes and acquire a driver’s license in a few months! With their license, we expect them to stay alert and attentive on the road for 6 or 10 hours while performing complex permutations and combinations in the mind over a 500 km dark, narrow, two-way tattered stretch of a road at 100 km/h! And with tens of passengers on board in a vehicle whose fitness is uncertain! Without a comprehensive review of our driver training and appraisal system, God will certainly spend more of his time helping the Japanese overcome massive earthquakes, the Americans conquer the universe, and the Dutch reclaim the sea as our people die mercilessly on the roads. Prayers may work miracles but road safety is definitely not a miracle. We must take matters into our hands.