Can better industrial standards reduce road carnage?

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BY TOBIAS ALANDO

As an association that represents manufacturers, we are appalled at and deplore the number of accidents that occur in this country even though they seem to have significantly gone down this year according to the latest statistics. Still, we have been working with the government to ensure that these numbers reduce even further especially with the help of bus body builders in the country.

The bus body building sector is older than the nation and started in 1959 with the first bus body building company which fabricated local buses for international companies. It is currently made up of about 12 big companies that control 90 percent of the local market share. These companies are mainly located in Nairobi and they specialise in mini, medium and big buses while another 40 smaller companies are scattered around the country.

The investment of all these companies totals to about Sh8 billion and directly employs 5,000 Kenyans and many thousands more due to the industries big supply chain. The sector is the most advanced in the region and exports buses to about nine countries which include other East African partner states, Ethiopia, Malawi, Madagascar and the DRC.

Bus body builders face a plethora of challenges such as stiff competition from fully built buses imported from Far East countries such as China and also second hand micro and minibuses which are not localised for our country’s roads. Furthermore due to unreliable energy, the investors in this sector have to contend with the high cost of running diesel generators.

There are also a number of illegal bus body builders who put together unsound structures and give the rest a bad name by not conforming to gazetted KS372 body building standards. To top the list however is the fact that the government is busy importing 200 buses for urban use from other countries. An exported bus is twice as expensive as a locally made bus. The government also last year changed the VAT tax bracket of the sector from zero rated to the 16pc VAT bracket.

This affects the cash flow situation of companies in this industry since the VAT has to be paid by the 20th of each month irrespective of whether buyers have made payments or not.

Lately, the sector has come under a lot of flack due to the recent spate of accidents especially those involving busses. If you have ever visited a bus body building company, you will immediately realise that the body of a bus is basically made of a strong steel skeleton padded up for the comfort of passengers such that by the time an accident happens, many other facts are at play such as the state of our roads, the condition of the driver, unroadworthy vehicles, the weather, corrupt officials who continue to allow unroadworthy vehicles on our roads amongst others.

On the fateful day when Princess Diana’s car rammed into the walls of a Paris tunnel, not all safety measures inbuilt by one of the best car makers in the world could save her life. To be fair to local body builders, the body and design of a bus only determines the extent of damage caused by the accident based on the impact force, not whether or not it will happen. Obviously certain factors such as the space between the seats, entry and exit doors, emergency exits, floor level height, and many more play a role in mitigating damage during an accident.

But the grisly nature of some of the accidents involving buses is such that no matter what the bus body designer does, lives will be lost. Safety precautions are rendered useless if a bus rolls down a steep cliff and plunges into a river. Any inbuilt escape mechanisms are of no use to the unfortunate passengers stranded inside such a bus. In addition to these safety precautions is the stability and strength evaluations of a bus body structure, the seat anchorages, and anti roll bars to prevent the roof from caving in and killing passengers. All these are compromised if buses are overloaded.

To ensure the safety and comfort of passenger, bus body builders also have a technical committee which periodically reviews the KS372 standards and presents recommendations to the relevant Government institutions. They have already done a review so far of KS372 with KEBS TC122 and are currently coming up with a standard called the ‘code of practice for bus body builders’ which will act as a control mechanism for all manufacturers in the sector. In past reviews, they have recommended the elimination of luggage racks from busses which are usually life threateningly over loaded and this has been implemented.

Government officials should therefore lay the blame squarely where it is due and work at tackling the real causes of these accidents to make things safe for all passengers. We therefore need to work hard to ensure that the state of our roads, our vehicles and our drivers are suitable for travel.

(The writer is the head of membership development at the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and can be reached on [email protected])

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