Why mental health may be the hidden danger on road safety efforts in Kenya

By Eunice Mutave

In road safety campaigns, where speed limits, seat belts, and traffic regulations dominate discussions, there is a crucial aspect that is often sidelined – mental health. As we strive to embrace a holistic approach to road safety, especially in Kenya where about 4000 lives are lost annually to road crashes, it is now time to explore the influence of mental well-being on driving safety.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health not just as the absence of disease but as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Within this definition, mental health plays a vital role, encompassing emotional resilience, cognitive functioning, and social interactions.

WHO data shows that mental, neurological, and substance use disorders affect more than a quarter of the global population at some point in their lives, necessitating our recognition of mental health as a key determinant of road safety.

Over 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, stress, sadness, and weariness – conditions that can compromise a driver’s focus, reaction times, decision-making abilities, and overall cognitive functioning. These are critical components for safe driving. Mental health issues, including impaired attention, concentration, memory, and decision-making, significantly heighten the risk of causing road crashes.

In Kenya, mental health awareness is gradually gaining momentum, guided by the Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015–2030 being implemented by the Ministry of Health. Acknowledging that mental health is influenced by various factors, including individual attributes, social and cultural aspects, economic conditions, and the overall environment, this policy marks a significant step forward. Nonetheless, the scarcity of data on the prevalence of mental health, neurological, and substance use disorders in the country remains a challenge.

Despite limited data, estimates from the Ministry of Health indicate that a significant proportion of individuals seeking outpatient and in-patient services in health facilities suffer from mental health conditions. Depression, substance abuse, stress, and anxiety disorders are among the most common diagnoses made in general hospital settings.

Demanding working conditions and economic pressures faced by many drivers in Kenya subject them to considerable stress and anxiety. This exacerbates the potential impact of mental health on road safety.

Despite this situation, drivers depend on their mental faculties to make decisions, assess risks, and skilfully navigate the roads. Judging gaps, time, and distances accurately is essential for making responsible choices while driving. Regrettably, individuals grappling with mental illness often experience impaired judgment and cognitive functioning, substantially increasing the likelihood of poor decision-making on the road. This could partly explain why many road crashes result from dangerous overtaking, driving under the influence of drugs and other forms of human errors.

To ensure road safety, it is necessary to incorporate mental wellness as part of driver training, evaluations and licensing procedures. Collaborative efforts between medical professionals and policymakers are necessary to develop comprehensive assessments that may include mental health screenings for all drivers.

These measures will aid in identifying individuals who may require additional support, treatment, or temporary driving restrictions until their mental health improves.

Furthermore, raising awareness on the role of mental health in road safety through impactful campaigns and educational initiatives is crucial. Emphasizing the significance of mental health for road safety and providing drivers with resources and abilities to manage stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges can significantly contribute to safer driving practices.

Employers also have a pivotal role to play by promoting supportive work environments and implementing policies that prioritize employee mental well-being, thus reducing the strain that may negatively impact their driving performance.

It must dawn on us that road safety is a shared responsibility that demands our attention to all aspects of well-being, including mental health. By acknowledging the profound impact of mental health on driving safety and taking proactive measures to address it, we can pave the way for safer roads and a healthier society as a whole.

Mutave is a HR professional at AA Kenya

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