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Road Safety: Can Google Maps Help Kenyans Leapfrog Unmarked Bumps?

A "wide" bump on a Kenyan road. These tend to be quite common as a way to slow cars for pedestrians to cross or at a junction. However, many unmarked and poorly visible bumps turn to hazards for motorists. 
How long has it been since you heard the word “leap frog”?

It’s a term that grew in popularity as it was used to describe the outcome of the arrival and spread of the mobile phone in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For decades, “development” had appeared to stagnate in many of these countries, with slow-growing economies and little change in how people led their lives. In some instances, things appeared to have even gone into reverse gear.

But then, while the developed world was freaking about something called the Millennium Bug in 2000, mobile networks were coming up across the continent.

In the next decade, mobile phone usage would explode as many Africans were finally able to own phones for the first time ever. Previously, you had to lease a land line from a state-owned company and many of these had waiting lists several years long.

With mobile networks came SMS and USSD which innovative businesses took advantage of to create basic applications even within the limitations of these channels, yet these applications made a huge difference seeing where we were coming from.

Mobile networks then evolved to 3G heralding a data revolution across the continent as millions of people began buying smartphones and accessing the internet for the first time.

This shift from a situation where barely much was happening to one where Africans could access information, send and receive money instantly with services such as M-Pesa and do much more on their phones was referred to as “leapfrogging”.

Leapfrogging meant that instead of things following the traditional progression where they started off at a basic level and advanced incrementally, most countries jumped several steps at a time going from a basic level to a significantly advanced one, with barely anything in-between.

It meant rather than African countries going from landlines to copper lines then to internet delivered through copper lines and finally to mobile networks, they virtually jumped from almost nothing to mobile phones everywhere.

Leapfrogging was celebrated due to its impact. Take internet usage in Kenya, for instance. In June 2008, there 405,000 internet subscriptions serving a population of 39.5 million. One year later, the number of subscriptions had exploded to 1.8 million.

In 2008, the mobile phone in Kenya accounted for 394,000 of the subscriptions and in 2009, for almost the entire lot with 1.8 million mobile subscriptions.

A decade later, Kenya now has more than 45 million data subscriptions. More than 99% of these subscriptions continued to be through 3G and 4G networks. The country is now going through a growth in “fixed” internet subscriptions as opposed to mobile ones as fibre is rolled out to more homes.

Thus, Kenya is said to have leapfrogged the evolution of landlines, then internet through landlines and copper wires, jumping from barely any internet usage to the latest 4G+ and fibre links. In fact, Safaricom is among the first network operators in the world to deploy a new generation internet link known as 400G.

This leapfrogging happens in many other ways. Years of neglect means that many of our roads lack sufficient signage. For years, this meant that getting around unfamiliar places in cities like Nairobi required a lot of creativity. Navigation was done by landmarks. In the City Centre, Afya Centre, a green 21 floor building was an important point of reference for many first timers to the city.

Today, everything is inside our smartphones in that app known as Google Maps. Somehow, they even figured out a public transit map for Nairobi, which is a system that’s so chaotic that that in itself it has become a badge of honour. The vehicles have no schedule, there are few stops with the roadside or even the road serving as a bus-stop many a time, and the vehicles are independently owned and managed with the only unifying factor usually being they carry passengers between two common points. Yet, with a smartphone, a visitor to Nairobi can now navigate this maze.

Leapfrogging in the continent has come to be characterised by the ability of technology to distill order out of systems that have been chaotic, or non-existent for decades.

Yet, Google Maps can still achieve much more impact beyond helping us find which matatu goes to our aunt’s place the first time we are in Nairobi, or help us find a specific shop down an unlabelled street.

Besides the impossibility of finding places, the other downside of roads in countries like Kenya is insufficient warning of hazards.

Bumps are a common feature on Kenyan roads, usually appearing in place of missing footbridges and pedestrian lights. In addition to being frequently common, bumps on Kenyans roads also tend to be unmarked, and vary from barely discernible rumble strips to mountains which can only be safely driven upon at no more than a crawling pace. Saloon cars can only cross the bumps diagonally if they have any hope of their undercarriage clearing the obstacle without scraping it.




A bump on a country road  leading to grape fields from Nice, France. Note the extreme width of the bump (about 3 to 4 times the widest Kenyan bumps) and the fact that it is clearly marked from both sides


This means that accidents involving unexpected bumps are quite common, and these tend to be fatal too. My friend tells me of a biker who rode with his pals from Nairobi to Mombasa, and on their way back, encountered a freshly erected and unmarked bump. He only realised there was a bump when his bike went airborne, but he did not have much time to process the sequence of activities as he was separated from his bike while still in the air and the landing was hard enough to kill him.

In December 2016, more than 40 people were horribly burned to death when a vehicle carrying flammable chemicals hit a bump and drove into oncoming traffic before exploding. Curiously enough, the bump was marked and had a sign, and on top of both, had preceding strips that warned drivers of the bump.

This incident raises questions on how a driver who missed all those cues and still went ahead to crash into other vehicles was on the road, and more so, how you get away with ferrying such dangerous substances with no protective measures whatsoever.

It also shows how dangerous a compromise bumps can be. Bumps are a compromise between motorists and roads that were not designed to factor in all road users.

Kenya and Spain are about the same size geographically and have just about the same population. Spain has 683,000 kilometres of roads and Kenya has 161,000 kilometres, with 20 countries in between the two in the global road length ranking. Yet, while 99% of roads in Spain are paved, only about 14% of roads in Kenya are. What this means is that people in Kenya try to settle and do business around the few roads that are paved, and therefore there ends up being a conflict between them and motorists leading to the bumps.

Wikipedia lists Spain as having 17,000 kilometres of expressways while Kenya remains unlisted. In fact, Kenya has about 12,000 kilometres of paved roads, which means that the total length of paved roads in Kenya is less than the length of expressways in Spain!
The over-dependence on bumps, and the fact that they are poorly maintained with a lot of variance in how they are done and marked means they end up being a hazard to road users.

Most motorists rely on navigation by having an intimate knowledge of each and every curve, bump and pothole on a road, especially at night. The accident that killed 40 people at a bump in Naivasha happened at night.

It is here that Google Maps can come in to help, through that word - leapfrogging.

Most motorists slow down for bumps or where roads have a hazard such as potholes and other issues.

Maps can launch an experimental feature that promotes road safety by warning users that other road users typically slow down at a point.

Yes, it may not have helped the negligent truck driver at Karai who is also unlikely to use Google Maps, or even the biker who found a new bump on his way back, but it can help many other road users in safely using our chaotic roads.

Again, it may be the tipping point that creates awareness and demand for safer roads for all. But would this be an issue that Google Maps would be willing to navigate as its contribution to global road safety?

According to the World Health Organisation, road accidents are the eighth leading cause of deaths globally. For people aged 15 to 49 years, they were the fourth leading cause of death and on track to overtake HIV/AIDS for third position, if they don’t hit a bump.

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