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Drivers: Kenyan traffic laws increase bribe size

Updated at: 12/12/2012 9:36 AM
By TOM ODULA

(AP) NAIROBI, Kenya - Traffic bribes are a way of life for many Kenyan drivers. One dollar here, $5 there. But the drivers of the rowdy minibuses known as matatus say that Kenya’s new traffic laws, which carry higher fines and bigger jail sentences, will result primarily in higher bribes.

The new law on drunk driving doesn’t include a measurable definition of "drunk," and police have no way to measure blood alcohol content, making it a conducive environment for collecting bribes.

Kenya’s government says it is implementing the Traffic Amendment Act 2012 to reign in reckless driving. Some 3,000 people die on Kenya’s roads each year.

Driving in Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, is a nightmarish experience. Few intersections have stoplights or stop signs, creating a snarly mess that only the boldest drivers, or biggest cars, get through quickly. Matatus, as the minibuses are known, frequently drive on the wrong side of the road and on sidewalks. Skinny, pot-holed roads have no shoulders.

"It’s madness. It is absolutely chaotic," said Munene Gachuru of the Pamoja Road Safety initiative, an advocacy group promoting road safety.

The new law, which went into effect last weekend, increases fines and jail terms for reckless and drunk driving, obstruction, and driving on the sidewalk by as much as 15 times what they used to be. Fines now range between $250 and $1,250. The most regular offenders of the traffic laws are the thousands of privately owned matatus. Drivers of these vehicles frequently disregard traffic laws in hopes of increasing passenger loads and padding their low pay.

Matatu crews went on strike last week to protest the new, larger fines, saying that the laws will only increase the bribes that are paid. The strike forced thousands of commuters to walk to work but had no impact on the implementation of the new law.

"For those who argue that the cost of breaking the law is high, they must be told that the cost of killing people on the roads must be equally high if not higher," said Cyrus Njiru, the Transportation Ministry’s permanent secretary.

In Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera, matatu driver Abraham Omondi said he drives aggressively to answer the demands of clients who want to move quickly. Omondi said if he doesn’t make enough money during the day his matatu owner will fire him.

Omondi said if he is caught breaking the law by police he would rather "settle the offense out of court." He makes the only about $7 a day, he said.

"If we were paying lower fines I would prefer to pay the government, but since the fines are high I’d rather settle the matter with the policeman who has arrested me, because in that circumstance he is helping me," he said.

Matatu Owners Association Chairman Simon Kimutai, whose organization represents about 50,000 minibuses countrywide, said immediately after the new laws came into effect police began demanding higher bribes. Police used to ask for $2, and now they want $11 for a minor offense and $117 for a major offense, he said.

Kimutai said police look at matatus as a cash cow. He estimated that police nationwide collect some $880,000 per month from minibuses. If the driver or the owner of a minibus refuses to pay, then the car is impounded on trumped-up charges, he said.

Most Kenyan police are poorly paid _ about $200 a month _ leading to a culture of kickbacks. Last month police spokesman Eric Kiraithe admitted corruption is a huge problem in the force, saying it is "deep and wide."

Kimutai noted that many traffic police, who stand at intersections and extract bribes, appear plumper than regular police. Under the new law all types of police can enforce traffic laws.

Samuel Kimeu, executive director of the Kenyan chapter of corruption watchdog Transparency International, said Kenya’s road problems have little to do with the law and more to do with a lack of enforcement. Less punitive laws would be effective if they were enforced, he said.

"With corruption so rampant, it is the size of bribe that is likely to go up. Attitude change among the public and the law enforcement agencies is the panacea to the menace," Kimeu said.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)