AT A bar off Langata road, a main highway in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, business has been struggling of late. The problem, the manager says, is that his bar is inconveniently positioned between two crossroads where officers from the police and the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) often put up roadblocks to check if drivers have been drinking. “It is right what the government is doing,” he says. “But it is really squeezing us. These people with their alcoblow have taken away all of our customers.”
The “alcoblow”—what Kenyans call a breathalyser— is relatively new in Nairobi. An effort to introduce the devices in 2006 was thwarted when drivers got a court to declare that their rights were being violated. But a traffic act in 2012 toughened penalties for drunk-driving; since then, breathalysers have been used at traffic stops. In March the NTSA acquired 45 new vehicles, from which officers can patrol and pull over drivers they suspect of imbibing.
Yet in a country where getting round annoying rules is a national sport, and where cops are seen as extractors of bribes rather than upholders of the law, many people find ingenious ways to get away with driving drunk. In the bar on Langata road, the manager admits that when the police are around he will use the speakers to issue updates about where the road blocks are. The information comes from a network of drivers who, on a Saturday night, run a thriving business driving tired and emotional customers in their own cars past the checkpoints (but not all the way home).
It is not just this bar. On Facebook, to which a growing number of Kenyans are addicted, a page called “alcoblow watch” provides updates on where officers are. Others go further. Drive on Nairobi’s roads late at night at a weekend, and you may see dizzy drivers reversing backwards up a dual carriageway to an exit or doing perilous U-turns ahead of the police checkpoints.
Amusing as these dodges may be, the consequences are not. In 2013 as many as 13,000 people died on Kenya’s roads. In Britain, which has a somewhat bigger population and vastly more cars, the figure was 1,700. Of the ten most dangerous countries in the world for road deaths, only two, Iran and Thailand, are not in Africa. And the number of Africans who can afford to buy cars and lots more beer is only going up.