In Kenya, Carjackings Spawn Driving Schools

Carjackings are a fact of life in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. And anyone who takes to the road there risks being a victim. This particular crime has spawned a growing industry — defensive driving schools.

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In Nairobi, Kenya, crimes on the roads are many, but statistics are few. The police don't keep count of carjackings and kidnappings in the city. And the police are not a lot of help in preventing them. People living in Nairobi are constantly trading crime stories. And now, there's an industry devoted to making them feel safer, teaching defensive driving.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

(Soundbite of driving car)

GWEN THOMPKINS: The creep, creep, creep of traffic in Nairobi is a cautionary tale in city planning. Nairobi began as a railroad town, then a cow town, then it morphed into a major African capital. But many streets here are single lane. Cows still have the right of way. Traffic lights are rare and large vans dominate the roads, the shoulders and the sidewalks too. The vans are called matatus and they transport passengers like ambulances racing for the emergency room. Often and without warning, the matatus stop, dumping otherwise healthy men and women into the middle of a busy intersection. And the people run like hell to safety. Joseph Latito(ph) is the police commandant of traffic.

Mr. JOSEPH LATITO (Police Commandant, Traffic, Nairobi): So the infrastructure is not coping with the volume of vehicles.

THOMPKINS: So, how many vehicles would Nairobi's infrastructure comfortably accommodate?

Mr. LATITO: Less than a million.

THOMPKINS: Less than a million.

Mr. LATITO: Yeah.

THOMPKINS: And how many cars would you say are on the road right now?

Mr. LAPITO: Close to two million.

THOMPKINS: But when the traffic dies down, carjackers, and increasingly, kidnappers, pounce. Provisional police commander Anthony Kabuchi(ph) says, carjackers came for him at a roundabout.

Mr. ANTHONY KABUCHI (Provisional Police Commander, Nairobi, Kenya): It was during the night when the two people - one holding something like a pistol emerged, I - instead of me stopping, I did not panic. I just blow off and I called the officers who are on the patrol. And I described the thugs. So, they went there and they were shot down.

THOMPKINS: Shot down?

Mr. KABUCHI: Yes. They were shot.

THOMPKINS: Just this month the police buried an officer who was killed during a carjacking. Carjackers have been known to throw themselves onto the hoods of moving cars. They all pose as passengers on Matatus and they'll steal a car just to look for a better one. Most often they hide in the shadows at someone's driveway gate and spring forward when the driver gets home. Kabuchi says that if you have a flat tire at night, drive on it. And if a carjacker persists, he says, the Kenyan constitution is on your side.

Mr. KABUCHI: The constitution guarantees you to kill a person when you're in danger.

Unidentified Man: Our constitution, I don't know what the motive of the constitution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KABUCHI: It is good for the civilian life if you can.

THOMPKINS: But for the driver who wants to travel without a body count, there may be another way.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

THOMPKINS: Glen Edmonds(ph) says race car drivers know more about how to stay out of trouble than anybody else.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

THOMPKINS: That's his 1974 Datsun at the East African Classic Safari rally, a 4000 kilometer stock car race across Kenya and Tanzania.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

THOMPKINS: His team placed third this month behind a Porsche 911 and 1967 Ford Mustang. Edmonds says it's better to take anti-carjacking advice from a natural driver.

Mr. GLEN EDMONDS (Rallyist, East African Classic Safari Rally): Because in any sort of security driving drivers drive. We don't shoot, we don't do stuff like that. We scoot.

THOMPKINS: Edmonds is a white Kenyan who got his security training at the former Blackwater, USA and in Jordan. He has contracts with a number of embassies here to train their drivers and staff members in road safety. And his is one of several schools in Nairobi that specialize in defensive driving, anti-carjacking and counter terrorism. Okay, it's not as sexy as it sounds. Out near the airport this facility is like high school drivers aid with orange cones and a manual car.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

THOMPKINS: Edmonds says most of his students are under the false impression that they already know how to drive.

Mr. EDMONDS: We sit in the class and I say, right, how many of you drivers when you were told you're going on a driving course, and I say, be honest, said, why I do I need to go on a driving course? I can drive. And you would be surprised at the amount of people that put their hands up.

(Soundbite of car door)

Mr. GEORGE MACGAUGH(ph) (Driving Instructor, Nairobi, Kenya): Can you put your seatbelt on first, because that's good practice?

THOMPKINS: Instructor George Macgaugh says that avoiding a carjacking comes down to mastering a few basic techniques. And paramount among them is knowing how to reverse quickly. Macgaugh says that most drivers either jerk themselves backwards or they fishtail. The key is to straighten the wheel first and then start moving the car. And, remember, no big Martha Graham gestures with the wheel - just those tight little Bob Fosse adjustments.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

THOMPKINS: Here's another basic. Ever done this before?

(Soundbite of braking)

THOMPKINS: Never ever steer and brake at the same time. It only confuses the car. And Macgaugh says that when breaking suddenly, lay off the clutch.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

Mr. MACGAUGH: By not using the clutch, we're allowing the car to have maximum engine braking right to the last second of when you're breaking. Ninety-nine percent of Kenyan students we have press the brake and clutch at the same time. So they're losing probably more than 15 percent braking efficiency.

THOMPKINS: Macgaugh says they used to call this lesson dog avoidance until Kenyans said they'd rather hit the dog. So now they call it child avoidance because, you know, nobody wants to hit a kid. But even after you've mastered the basics and then aced the advanced stuff like vehicle ramming and breaching, things can still go wrong. Edmonds says in that situation the training will help you make fewer mistakes. Before Edmonds trained 10 years ago, carjackers chased him and his wife and he made some real doozies.

Mr. EDMONDS: I knew I was being followed for about three kilometers, but you think to yourself, oh, this will never happen to me. And, of course, every single thing you could - you can imagine to do wrong I could. I brought them home, they followed us home, they shot at us. They had AK 47s, they shot at us at the gate. The only way we survived it was because I was able to out drive them.

THOMPKINS: But let's face it. These courses can be expensive. Some run more than a $1,000. Traffic commandant Joseph Aletito says that drivers here need not spend the money because the police are on the job.

Mr. ALETITO: I'm telling you from the deep part of my heart that the country is safe. Don't be scared. Don't be scared.

THOMPKINS: But, on the way home from the interview with Officer Lapito we saw a young man lying dead on the side of the road. His head had been bashed in. Who knows what might have happened to him, random violence or random driving. And yet no one seems surprised. Motorists motor passed, passers by simply passed him by. And it took 40 minutes of calling before the police answered the telephone.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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