How the dream of a matatu black box was killed by bogus speed governors

After years of playing hide and seek with merchants of death, whose recklessness costs Kenya an estimated 3,000 lives annually, there was a collective sigh of relief last October.

In one clean swoop, the government thought it had nailed crooked but slippery passenger service vehicle (PSV) operators by introducing a new generation speed governor which could record and transmit data and at the same time give a vehicle’s location in real time.

This three-in-one gadget was, in the words of information technology experts, a black box which could inform the National Transport Safety Authority (NTSA) every time a driver disconnected the governor and was cruising at a speed of more than 80 kilometres per hour.

Before the new-look speed governor was introduced last October, Daniel Kiarie, the chair of Road Safety Association of Kenya recalled how matatu operators would remove the old generation GPS-based gadgets immediately after accidents, making it difficult to nail speeding and reckless drivers.

But some profiteers, like vultures, have replicated what their ilk has done in the past to exploit every man-made or natural calamity.

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To them, every tragedy presents opportunities for get-rich quick schemes at the expense of the dead and the living.

Red flags were first raised in November 2019, a month after the gadgets were rolled out, when the road safety association wrote to NTSA to report that some passenger service and commercial vehicles were being fitted with tracking devices instead of the new tamper-proof speed governors.

Some vehicles

Consequently, NTSA formed a multi-agency committee which prepared a report that confirmed that indeed, some vehicles had been installed with the wrong gadgets.

In all, an estimated 300,000 matatus, buses, tourist vans, lorries and other commercial vehicles were to be fitted with a speed governor capable of detecting when drivers exceeded the speed limit or attempted to tamper with the gadget.

The gadget was also to report when drivers misbehaved on the road and transmit data to NTSA every five seconds.

The lid on this new scam has been yanked off by detectives, who have, for the last six months, been sifting through layers of deceit created by some entrepreneurs keen to mint billions of shillings from the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The cabals went to work at a time the country’s main focus was mitigating against the effects of the coronavirus.

Investigations show how some suppliers, working in cahoots with some bureaucrats, have in the last nine months made millions of shillings by selling and installing bogus speed governors to owners of passenger service and heavy commercial vehicles.

Industry surveillance show that about 60,000 vehicles have since last year been fitted with GPS tracking devices instead of the mandatory speed limiting governors that were supposed to transmit data to the authorities every five seconds.

This constitutes 80 per cent of all the vehicles fitted with the speed-limiting gadget.

Some vehicle owners conspired with fitting inspectors and suppliers to beat the system and subvert attempts to tame road carnage which have since March claimed 1,700 lives.   

Although these deaths are not wholly to be blamed on speeding by passenger service and heavy commercial vehicles, bogus speed governors have contributed to the carnage. 

Speed governors

Concerned by the emerging trend, the Kenya Matatu Owners Association wrote to the Ministry of Interior on June 20, detailing how some suppliers have imported bogus speed governors which they were fitting at highly discounted rates to unsuspecting vehicle owners.  

“We have reason to believe that some suppliers have stockpiled thousands of speed governors that are not in conformity with KS2295:2018 standard and are positioning themselves to use NTSA inspection units to ensure all counterfeit speed governors are fitted on goods carrying vehicles, tourist service vehicles and passenger carrying vehicles post Covid-19 lockdown,” warned the matatu owners.

The matatu owners said the bogus speed governors lacked speed retardation at 80 kilometres per hour, were not tamper-proof and did not have inbuilt recording and thermal printer to transmit data from the vehicle to NTSA servers.

According to multiple sources, the new generation speed governors took two years to develop and was supposed to reduce the speed of a speeding vehicle to crawling at 20 kilometres per hour, but some suppliers had found a way around this.

They instead fitted GPS-based governors which gave only the location of the vehicle and could be tampered with to falsify the speed.

A technical report prepared by Road Safety Association indicated that something had gone wrong from the time the new speed governor was rolled out.

“NTSA does not have a server where it stores data. Instead, it instructed suppliers to give them access to their servers and gave one common log-in (NTSA) and one common password (NTSA123) for all speed governors,” the report reveals.

”It has been noted in quite a number of gadgets that data transmitted is being computer-generated by supplier platforms. This was made known in a meeting held at NTSA for suppliers early this year by Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) officials.”

At the same time, the safety association disclosed that inspection units were not testing the speed governor’s functionality and in-built data storage but only concentrated on online data in the supplier’s server.

The most damming finding by the Road Safety Association was that all matatus they had sampled had old speed governors and tracking /fleet management devices.

“Eighty per cent of all fitted speed governors are therefore basically tracking devices. These GPS trackers are superimposed on the old speed governors which is illegal as the old speed governors are now obsolete,” reads the report.

The speed governors at the same time lacked the ‘failsafe’ component, explaining why bypass switches have come back. The failsafe component immobilises a vehicle when driver exceeds speed limits. This is never tested due to the fact that the vehicle must be on the move.

The fitting of the governors too had been compromised because contrary to the stipulation that this be done in licensed centres, most vendors had instead set up fitting kiosks country-wide.

Some vendors had given speed governors to freelance fitters in contravention of the law.

“It was quite pathetic to see governors being fitted inside inspection units like it happened in Kisumu, Kericho, Thika, Embu and even at Likoni,” the report says.

“We were shocked by the findings; majority of the speed governors did not comply with the standards.”

A survey carried out by the association found that 13 out of the 46 companies licensed as vendors had fitted tracking devices instead of the recommended governors.

Transport industry

Following these findings, some transport industry players now want a country-wide crackdown to get rid of all the bogus speed governors.

According to Kebs’ technical personal assistant to the managing director, Martin Masibo, complaints had been received about some speed governors.

“It is worth noting that the issue of speed governors is a very important one as it touches on the safety of people. The inter agency government committee undertook an audit in January/ February 2020 before Covid-19 interrupted the process…sampling from the database of the installed vehicles, cases of speeding were very few and mainly would occur for very short periods,” Masibo said.

Kebs further said that they normally check and certify speed governors at the point of manufacture and before they are released to the market where the issue of superimposition cannot arise.

Asked whether Kebs had undertaken any market surveillance to flush out the bogus speed governors, the official said the agency does not monitor their usage.

“It should be noted that Kebs has a directorate that is charged with undertaking market surveillance of products at the points of sale but not during usage.

“We offer testing and calibration services for speed governors to assure on the quality but the issue of monitoring their application is not within our mandate,” he said.

But it was not possible to establish how many bogus speed governors had been fitted and what action had been taken against violators from the government.

Wangui Muchiri, the head of communications at the Interior Ministry, said the issue of speed governors was not within their ambit.

“Please call NTSA and the National Police Service. They are best placed to comment on this matter,” Muchiri told Sunday Standard.

When Sunday Standard called NTSA to find out what action had been taken against the 13 vendors who had fitted thousands of bogus speed governors, Director-General George Njao at first promised to call back.

Follow ups on WhatsApp and calls to Njao were not answered.

At the same time, efforts to determine whether NTSA had established its own server were unsuccessful as calls and messages to Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia were not responded to. National Police spokesperson Owino Wahongo was also unavailable to respond to text messages and did not respond to calls.

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