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Kenya's Traffic Deaths Down as New Rules Take Effect

Tough road safety rules introduced two years ago by Kenya's then transportation minister are beginning to pay off. The latest figures show accidents on Kenya's roads are down a third from last year.

Nearly 3,000 people a year are killed on Kenyan roads. That's 60 deaths for every 10,000 vehicles, compared to just two deaths per 10,000 vehicles in the United States. The hazards are many: poorly built roads, speeding trucks, drivers routinely passing on blind curves, drunk drivers, overloaded buses.

Even Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki had to conduct his last election campaign from a wheelchair because he injured his leg in a car accident.

Two years ago, Kenya's then transportation minister, John Michuki, adopted a series of decrees to strengthen road safety laws and he pressed traffic police to enforce them.

He made seat belts mandatory for all public transportation, banned talking on cell phones while driving, and introduced laws to rein in the deadliest scourge of Kenya's roads, minibus taxis. The new laws forced operators of minibus taxis ( also known as matatus) to install speed limiters and to reduce the number of passengers each matatu could carry. Despite huge protests by matatu taxi drivers, Mr. Michuki stood his ground.

The payoff, which is showing in the latest statistics, is significant. Traffic accidents dropped from a yearly average of almost 30,000 to just over 20,000 last year. Road fatalities are down as well.

Mr. Michuki, who has moved to another ministry, could not be reached for comment, but Dickson Mbugua, chairman for Kenya's Matatu Welfare Association, took some of the credit.

He spoke to VOA on the cell phone from his minivan, with the ubiquitous hip-hop music at full blast.

"The issue of road safety is a collective responsibility by all stakeholders, not one party alone," he explained. "In particular the players [are] the commuters, the drivers, and the investors, because the government is just a placeholder, an implementer."

When asked if everyone on your matatu was wearing their seatbelts?

He replied, "Yes, they are, certainly. We have to make them do that."

The current transportation minister, Chris Murungaru, is trying to build on Mr. Michuki's success, implementing several programs to cut down on traffic deaths, including 24-hour roadside emergency call boxes and increasing the number of trauma centers at hospitals along major highways.