Highway of death: The Mombasa-Malaba highway taking more lives than Al-Shabaab

Martin Kiarie cheated death by the skin of his teeth after a truck speeding on the wrong lane almost rammed into his saloon car last November at Makindu trading centre, Makueni County. Kiarie was driving from Mombasa where he had gone to pick a client's car.

"I thought I was dreaming because were it not for the split second decision to veer off road, things would have been different. The truck driver didn't even flinch. He was ready to crush me to death," he said, grimly recalling the day he almost becoming just another statistic of the the highway of death -- the Mombasa/Nairobi/Malaba highway.

The Northern Transport Corridor is an economic lifeline within East and Central Africa, linking the landlocked countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi with Kenya's maritime port of Mombasa. It also serves eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan and northern Tanzania.

According to the Northern Corridor Transit and Transport Coordination Authority (NCTTCA), it accounts for more than 70 per cent of the total transit traffic flow and is preferred due to the relative good road quality and availability of social amenities en route. But the Corridor is a death trap, with a September 2014 NCTTA report labelling it a major source of accidents where injuries and fatalities with serious economic and social implications are routinely witnessed.

Titled Improvement of Road Safety and Health through Road Side Stations along the Northern Corridor, the study indicated that in 2013, Kenya experienced 3,179 fatal accidents along the Corridor, flowed by Uganda at 2,937, DRC (309), Rwanda (308), Burundi (275) while South Sudan reported 96 fatalities.

Aben Rogena, a truck owner, says many truck drivers simply don't give a damn.

"Picture a scenario where a driver plying the Northern transport corridor with tones of cargo has been driving for over 14 hours and is paid by the mile which gives him the incentive to drive further. Some even use sleep depriving drugs to stay awake thereby increasing chances of fatigue kicking in. To them safety is not a priority. In fact, most flee accident scenes never to be traced," he says.

Divers who spoke to The Nairobian learnt said the rush is due to pressure to earn more. They also blamed poor pay, saying it is the reason many drivers cruise on free gear to save fuel which they then sell to supplement their meagre wages and allowances.

"For most of us who have been driving across the borders for years, safety is not a priority since we have already proven that. It's all about the money," said a long distance truck driver who requested to remain anonymous for the sake of his job.

Rogena claimed childish 'macho wars' between truck and bus drivers also endangers the lives of road users. The rivalry of egos is intended to prove who is best at the steering wheel.

"They look down upon each other with commercial passenger buses referring to themselves as the 'corporate' while looking down at truck drivers. Truck drivers look down upon bus drivers as soft boys driving 'small' cars and all these is played on the roads to an extent where they will not give way further risking the life of road users," noted Rogena.

NCTTA categorised speeding, drink driving, pedestrian safety challenges non seat belt use, non helmet use, overloading, poor vehicle maintained and indiscipline as the main causes of carnage.

A two-lane highway that is too narrow for heavy traffic, congestion, many long down/uphill stretches, inadequate roadside parking space and inadequate road safety audits were also cited, together with a maintenance culture and enforcement, fake spare parts and underdeveloped road side traffic support amenities and services, among others.

According to Nicholas Mbugua, secretary general Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union (KLDTDU), poor pay, overworking, fatigue, intimidation and corruption are some of the common reasons driving long distance truck drivers go into early graves alongside those of other road users.

"Out of ten accidents on Kenyan roads, seven are caused by trucks," claims Mbugua who explained that once a truck is on free wheel and speeding, it becomes difficult for the driver to control it especially when on a steep slope or negotiating a corner.

Along major highways, truck drivers are notorious for bullying other motorists and lacking etiquette. They stick to the wrong lane, refuse to give way or drive menacingly to frighten other motorists who end up causing accidents.

Many of the transit trucks from Mombasa to Kigoma are also driven by one person after transport companies scrapped turn boys cum co-drivers as a cost-cutting measure.

The drivers supervise the loading and offloading of consignment, wash the trucks, fix punctures, secure the trucks, process invoices besides doing all other of tasks as they come. Imagine all the toil of doing such jobs by one person?" laments Mbugua.

Another issue of concern raised by Mbugua is use of cheap retread tyres that keep bursting.

Mbugua decried the incesstant bribe-taking by traffic police along the highway.

"The driver have no choice but to cooperate with the police. Woe unto those who refuse to bribe. Their vehicles are 'inspected' and then get fined for non-existent breaking of the law," says Mbugua.

He believes that with a strong union, drivers would receive better pay and allowances, hence reducing their chances of engaging in corruption and illicit sex.

According to Mbugua, a truck driver's average monthly salary us Sh15,000 plus ab additional travelling allowance of Sh7,000 for seven days.

This, he says, forces them to emply survival tricks like driving on free wheel to save fuel, which is in turn siphoned and sold in the black market.

This is the only way they can top up their little pay and allowances and recoup what they lose through police bribery