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Kenyan Traffic Plan Runs Into Opposition

Proposal for tougher rules seeks to boost safety. Some motorists fear harassment from dishonest officers.


NAIROBI, Kenya — A government proposal for stiff new traffic rules that would impose heavy fines and other penalties on reckless motorists has met strong disapproval from the owners and drivers of public transport vehicles, who fear dishonest traffic police will further harass them.

However, many private motorists are cautiously optimistic that the proposed laws in particular would tame drivers of the swarm of minivans--called "matatus"--that provide fast, reliable transport in the city but are notorious for flouting traffic rules. If passed, government officials believe that the Traffic Amendment Bill could greatly reduce fatalities on Kenyan roads and vastly improve the conduct of the nation's motorists.

Motoring industry officials say that, last year, more than 3,000 people died on Kenyan roads, on which 500,000 vehicles nationally are registered to run. In Los Angeles County, about 5.4 million cars and trucks are registered to operate, and 764 people were killed in traffic-related accidents in 1997.

Among the changes, Kenya's proposed legislation calls for an automatic 15-year prison term--up from 10 years--and a five-year driving ban for anyone convicted of killing a person as a result of dangerous driving. Fines of up to $1,250 and one year in jail for repeated lesser offenses would also be mandated.

A series of demerit points for less serious violations would also be awarded. Accumulating 14 to 20 points would bring an automatic one-year driving ban; more than 20 points, a two-year prohibition.

Breath tests would also be imposed to determine the blood-alcohol level and deter drunken driving, which analysts say is widespread in Kenya. The traffic laws would be administered by a new, independent Road Safety Authority, with its own enforcement officers.

Some traffic analysts questioned how the road authority would guarantee greater driving discipline and honest conduct of traffic police--infamous here for soliciting bribes--when the basic existing rules are not respected.

"What is the road authority going to change or add?" asked Gavin Bennett, director of the Kenya Motor Industry Assn. and a regular consultant and commentator for the motoring industry. "If there is suddenly the people and the money and the commitment to improve the situation, why can it not be applied through the existing framework?"

Matatu operators are concerned about a rule that would deal with minor traffic offenses outside the courts, allowing a driver who admits wrongdoing on the spot to pay an automatic fine.

The operators say this rule would boost the extortionist tendencies of some law enforcement officers, prompting them to request financial compensation in an exchange for allowing the driver to forgo a more expensive fine.

"The legislation would give the traffic police an opportunity to harass matatu drivers," said Simon Maina, 30, driver of a public minivan for nine years. "Instead of introducing harsh laws, the government should first pave the roads, whose conditions are the major cause of accidents." The streets of Nairobi, the capital, are peppered with potholes.

Robert Macharia, a 45-year-old matatu driver, suggested that the government expand the capital's network of roads, build overpasses for pedestrians and set speed limits--instead of imposing fines, demerit points and jail terms.

Some motoring gurus said the authorities should be praised for trying to curb increasingly common road tragedies because few African countries stringently adhere to traffic regulations or seriously punish errant motorists.

South Africa has launched a massive "Arrive Alive" road safety campaign; driving under the influence incurs a six-year prison sentence and a stiff financial penalty. Police sources said a demerit points system is being developed.

Some backers of the Kenyan proposal said it would take a huge U-turn in dishonest behavior among traffic police, and not just catchy slogans, for the new rules to succeed here.

"It depends on how serious the [new] police will be," businesswoman Grace Wanja said as she sat in her white 1991 Toyota Corolla on a busy Nairobi thoroughfare. "The issue is corruption. Retraining of the traffic police is not going to bring change if corruption is not [gotten] rid of."

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