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Georgetown Professors Hope to Reduce Kenya Traffic Accidents

Kenya Road Safety Stickers

Georgetown professors worked with local partner organizations to place stickers in English and Kiswahili inside Kenyan minibuses to make riders aware of their rights to complain to reckless drivers.

June 17, 2011 – Two Georgetown professors have demonstrated that a 60 percent reduction in Kenya’s traffic accidents is possible by simply placing stickers in minibuses that make passengers aware of their right to discourage their drivers from driving recklessly.

Associate economics professor Billy Jack, who lived in Nairobi from 2005-2007, joined Georgetown Public Policy Institute professor James Habyarimana on a study that placed the stickers on minibuses or matatus, the primary mode of public transport in Kenya and a frequent cause of road accidents.

“The idea is to test the efficacy of these different ways of empowering passengers to make a difference,” explained Jack, who with Habyarimana is in the second phase of a four-year research project focused on reducing traffic fatalities in Kenya.

Stand Up, Speak Up

In an initial trial phase, Jack and Habyarimana worked with local partner organizations to place the stickers inside a random sample of over 1,000 long-distance Kenyan minibuses. 

One set of stickers contained text-only messages, in both English and Kiswahili (the national language) such as “Don’t just sit there as he drives dangerously! STAND UP. SPEAK UP. NOW!”

Another set of stickers was more explicit and included gruesome images of people hurt in traffic accidents.

Passenger Power

The results from the trial, obtained by examining insurance claims, showed that minibuses with the stickers saw a 50 percent reduction in total accidents compared to the control group, and a 60 percent reduction in accidents causing injuries or fatalities.

“Our intervention motivates passengers to exercise their power as consumers, literally giving them a voice, by encouraging them to speak up, to heckle and chide the driver when his behavior compromises their safety,” wrote the authors in the report, called “Heckle and Chide: Results of a Randomized Road Safety Intervention in Kenya.”

The work is funded by a number of local partners in Kenya, as well as the U.S.-based National Bureau of Economic Research as part of its Africa Successes Project, the World Bank and Georgetown.

Second Phase

In the second phase of the study, the researchers will expand their sample size to more than 12,000 vehicles, and test nuanced wording on the stickers in an effort to evaluate which messages are most effective.

Ali Sharman (C’10) is in Nairobi this summer setting up the sticker distribution system, managing publicity and collecting data for the study.

“Stickers cost very little, yet if they can inspire people to speak up for their own safety and that of their fellow passengers, they can save lives,” Sharman says.

The researchers will also introduce national radio advertisements advocating road safety, with the intention of testing the effect that hearing an advertisement versus seeing a sticker has on both passengers and drivers.

A Cheap Intervention

Jack says he and Habyarimana hope to use the study findings to inform policies aimed at behavior change in other contexts, including health and education.

“Our intervention is cheaper at saving lives than immunization, which is itself very cheap,” he says, “by empowering people to express legitimate concerns in the face of dangerous driving.”

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