On the morning of September 11 2001, the United States of America woke up to what remains one of the most atrocious acts of terror on civilians. In a span of minutes, nearly 3000 people lay dead following the multiple airline hijackings and suicide crashing. That day is immortalized in history.
Even more enduring are the changes that occurred in the wake of the attacks. Not only has airline transportation practise changed worldwide, internal national US security, immigration, banking finance, foreign policy and military practise have all been affected in one way or another.
Two months after the attacks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was established with the core mandate of securing US transport systems; focussing on air transport. This mandate was later emboldened through the establishment of an entirely new Department of Homeland Security one year later. Twelve years on, airline and passenger safety in the US is a near-impregnable multi-layer behemoth system that spans the globe. There has been no repeat of the ignominious events of 9/11.
In achieving this feat, new laws were crafted and zealously implemented. New institutions were established with the mandate and wherewithal to achieve their specified objectives. Investment in new technology, training of personnel and public education have all been components of an all-out commitment to prevent, pre-empt and manage the next 9/11.
The raison d’être for these sweeping changes would be the sanctity and value of human life. There is no greater wealth to any nation than the lives of her people. Indeed, people are to a nation what good health is to an individual. The loss of a single life anywhere invariably shatters many other lives. Children are orphaned, spouses are widowed, parents bereaved and friendships cut short. The direct loss of productivity of the deceased and their grieving social circle cannot be quantified. Attendant expenses in emergency response, treatment, rehabilitation and funerals only make the pain and cost of avoidable death unbearable.
In Kenya, we live through a 9/11 on our roads every year! I have never lost a close relation in a road accident but lost my own dad to a fatal stroke. The sudden emptiness that engulfed the entire household remains palpable one year on. Each time the now regular road crashes grab the headlines; I cannot help but feel the pain, agony and anguish the families of the victims bear. It baffles me how the authorities charged with road safety live with their conscience through crash after crash to an annual tally of well over 3000 Kenyans! Thomas Jefferson’s words that, “The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness” ring hollow in these circumstances.
Unlike in the US where the loss of 3000 lives marked a turning point of global significance, our departed kin die in vain year in, year out. Are we just numb to the sheer pain of fellow citizens? Or are our own goals in life too grand for us to care about them? Alternatively, is it lost on us that this untamed beast will come calling on us or kin sooner rather than later? Still, are our lives of lesser value even before our own eyes?
We still grapple with (and lose invaluable lives in the process) the same old failures that make our roads unsafe. The number one determinant of all road fatalities remains speed yet the enforcement of the law on this single factor remains in limbo. Driver aptitude is roundly recognised as equally significant but we have not made even baby steps in reforming training, empowering and educating current drivers or even consistently punishing errant behaviour. Whenever we flex some muscle, it is usually an uncoordinated, limited and short-lived reflexive jolt in response to the latest tragedy. A common spectacle in those moments is the inspection of public service vehicles by the roadside. One wonders how such inspections appraise components like brakes, lights, wipers, emissions and so on. Pointedly, the focus is usually on licences, body paintwork, extra passengers, tyres and other such easily apparent failings. The irony is that in a spectacular misapplication of technology, drivers whose vehicles are found at fault are instantly fined, pay their fees on the spot and proceed in their death shells!
The ‘hero’ medal in today’s airline safety goes to the passenger (especially in the US). Even before one’s flight, one could already be on a ‘flight watch-list’. Then there is the ever growing list of prohibited items to check. Even those items allowed must be in certain quantities and packaging. A one hundred per cent baggage inspection means baggage must bear special or no locks lest they be broken into for one’s own safety. At the airport, traditional terminal car parks are now replaced by drop-off zones. Armed and uniformed military personnel are at hand and cameras record entire termini. Then there is the full-body scan by x-ray machines and so-called pat downs by TSA officers. Meanwhile, shoes get a dedicated x-ray session as one tugs on barefoot. As if that were not enough, the person on the seat next to you could be a trained security officer planted there for your safety.
Such is the seriousness with which life is guarded. Many passengers do not exactly love the ritual that air travel has become in the wake of 9/11 but they neither do they loathe it. Instead, most see it as necessary inconvenience whose dividends are too valuable to wish away. This understanding has partly been achieved not only by complete and constant communication with passengers, but also by co-opting passengers as stakeholders in the safety/security war. Even more important, a legal framework ensures everyone in the process plays their bit professionally and efficiently.
Back on our Kenyan roads, while passengers generally understand the basic safety regulations like seat-belts, non-speeding and safe loading, there has not been a demonstration of a compelling commitment on their part to these requirements. Too often, passengers board full buses for the selfish (nay foolish) expediency of saving time. In hospital beds, passengers recount tales of speeding or otherwise reckless drivers whom they did nothing about. Our losses on the roads have continued to be directly borne only by those immediately affected. As a result, a pervasive tolerance to this carnage has made sure the rest of us do not do our part in transportation vigilance until it is our turn to bear the loss.
The authorities need to empower passengers to report safety abuses by acting decisively on all reports. While the police have a particularly heavy legal responsibility to instill discipline on errant road users, we citizens bear the ultimate responsibility. If the police will not do their part, we should be selfish enough to demand better. Our safety is for the most part for our own individual good. It is now obvious not one of the numerous public officers whose job is to enforce road safety looses sleep over a road crash. At least you should give your safety a second thought and ultimately some action. It’s your life!
Michael Bane writes in his book Trail Safe: Averting Threatening Human Behavior in the Outdoors, “Risk is the increased consequence of failure.” We have made our roads risky by that which we fail to do. As a pedestrian, maintain your wits about you while by the roadside or crossing the road. As a passenger, ask the speeding driver to slow down and do it over until you feel safe. Other passengers may find you a nuisance but make no apologies for being safe. Wear your seat belt if provided. Do not board when there is no seat for you. Be selfish and jealously take guard of your life. Should you be the driver, common sense, traffic rules and courtesy should be your mantra behind the wheel. Even if you believe in an after-life, your family and loved ones cherish your presence more in this life. Should you fail to honor your duty to safety, like the over 3000 lives lost on the road in Kenya this year, your life will be lost in vain.