Traffic tickets and statebuilding in Kenya

Last year I had my first experience with the Kenyan courts when I got a traffic ticket for making a left turn into a street against a “no left turn” sign, which I hadn’t seen.  Paying it cost me Ksh 20,000 / US$200 in cash, and took four hours at three offices over two days. It was quite a contrast to the last time I got a traffic ticket in the US, where I paid about $60 by mail after speaking with a police officer for about 10 minutes.  The whole experience left me thinking about the enormous investments in administrative capacity which are necessary to simplify this type of bureaucratic interaction with the state.

Traffic tickets in Kenya

The Kenyan process was logical, if also quite slow.  After an officer stopped me for the turn, he took me to a nearby police station, where I waited for half an hour while someone wrote up my charges in a massive paper ledger.  I also had to pay Ksh 5000 / US$50 in cash bail, and promise to come to traffic court the next day. Anyone who skips court has a warrant put out for their arrest, although I’ve heard that these are rarely enforced.

The bail system is in principle an improvement over an older system where people accused of traffic violations were jailed until their day in court.  However, in practice half of Kenyans live on less than Ksh 10,000 / US$100 a month, and might end up getting jailed until their court date anyway.  It’s also not possible to just plead guilty to the traffic offense and pay at the station, as all accused traffic offenders have to come to court to plead their case.  I assume this rule is in place to centralize financial flows and avoid the risk of officers charging fines and then failing to remit them to their stations.

I came to the Milimani Courts the next day for my hearing.  After waiting for an hour and a half, the judge entered the packed traffic courtroom and began reading through people’s names and offenses.  Common charges included having expired insurance, failing to wear a seatbelt, and failing to immediately remove a car from the roadway after it broke down.  No one could leave the room until everyone’s charges had been read, almost an hour later.

People who agreed with their charges had to pay fines of anywhere from Ksh 20,000 / US$200 to Ksh 60,000 / US$600.  This is under the maximum legal fine of Ksh 100,000 / US$1000, but is still high in light of average income levels, and also seems high given the fairly minor offenses with which people were charged.  I was fined $200, and had to pay it in cash, on the spot, before I could leave the courtroom. People who can’t pay are jailed until they come up with the money.   Finally, I spent another 45 minutes wandering through the courthouse until I found a representative of the police station where I had paid my bail, and was able to reclaim that money.

Traffic tickets in the US

It’s quite a big difference to the ticketing process in the US.  The last time I got a traffic ticket there was around 2007, when I got stopped for speeding on a country road in New Hampshire.  As far as I can recall, the police officer scanned my license, printed the ticket with a $60 fine on the spot, and then let me go 10 minutes later.  There were options to pay online or by mail within two weeks if you didn’t contest the charge, or to go to traffic court if you did.  If you fail to pay, punishments include having the fine sent to a debt collector or losing your driving privileges, with arrest warrants only issued for people who continued driving on suspended licenses.  I mailed in a check within the week, and that was the matter resolved.

The US ticketing process wasn’t simpler because we’re a more trusting or law-abiding society.  It’s because the US has systems of identification and options for punishment which don’t require physically holding someone in jail or the courthouse in order to be effective.  This requires a lot of investments in different aspects of administrative capacity, many of which on the face of it have nothing to do with traffic enforcement.

State capacity and the payment of fines

Let’s think through what it would look like to implement the US system of pleading guilty to a traffic offense via the payment of a fine (by mail or online) in Kenya.  The officer stops you, writes down your license information, and gives you a handwritten ticket with the proposed fine and a payment date within two weeks. We’ve already hit obstacle #1: as far as I can tell, there isn’t a digital record of the ticket integrated into any master database of traffic offenses, which means police can’t check on the spot to see whether this is your first offense.  (Free research idea: digitizing the absolutely massive stacks of handwritten police ledgers at local stations would provide really fascinating information about patterns of ticketing and arrests.)

Giving people two weeks to get together the money to pay the ticket is a good idea.  And these days, over 80% of Kenyans have M-Pesa, so it is possible to pay digitally.  But even a few years ago, this would have been impossible, since most Kenyans haven’t got bank accounts, which are required to pay by mail (with a check) or online.  That’s obstacle #2: assuming everyone has access to payment modalities other than cash.

Now we’re getting to the biggest issue: how do police enforce payment of the fine?  In the US, it’s technically illegal to jail people simply for failing to pay a fine.  This means that there are other civil penalties applied, such as turning the fine over to a debt collector, or suspending one’s license until the fine is paid.  (You can still be jailed for driving on a suspended license, so in practice many people are still eventually jailed for failing to pay, which is a significant problem.)  This approach assumes that there’s a robust credit reporting and debt collection system in place, and also a national system for flagging people with suspended licenses. Credit reporting and debt collection systems, in turn, only work well when individuals have fixed addresses, known places of employment, registered bank accounts, and identifiers such as a Social Security number to tie these disparate pieces of information together.

Informality and debt collection in Kenya

A lot of the infrastructure that facilitates debt collection doesn’t exist in the same way in Kenya.  More than 80% of Kenyans work in the informal sector (thus with no wages to garnish), 57% haven’t got bank accounts, 38% haven’t got any formal ID, and an unknown but presumably large number haven’t got formal addresses.  This means that a large amount of debt collection is done through highly personalized means, like having loan guarantors pressure the debtor, or by alerting the debtor’s family and friends that they’ve defaulted on a payment.  There is a credit bureau which blacklists people who default on loans, but it’s unclear how this information is used for debt collection efforts, as collection is rarely mentioned in articles about default.  Shopkeepers, who are a major source of non-bank credit for many Kenyans, seem to lose a lot of money on defaulted loans, suggesting that debt collection isn’t working very efficiently.

I don’t intend to sound overly friendly to debt collectors here.  However, this also explains the rationale for immediate payment of fines in traffic court.  If someone walked away without paying, there don’t seem to be good civil means like debt collection to enforce the fine, and presumably police don’t want to spend their time tracking down people whom they previously had conveniently collected at the courthouse.  Thus the pressure to pay immediately, which in practice must be a great hardship for most people who are issued a traffic ticket — and probably forces them further into debt elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “Traffic tickets and statebuilding in Kenya

  1. Interesting. In Zambia where I live now, they recently installed speed cameras – you are informed by text message, and can pay your fine online. In Cote d’Ivoire (unless things have changed in recent years), you are fined on the spot for traffic offences and can pay on the spot too. There are three levels of traffic offence in Cote d’Ivoire, with corresponding fines of 500 cfa, 1,000 cfa and 2,000 cfa. These prices haven’t changed in years, so the worst you get is a $4 fine (my info is accurate as of 2012).

    Liked by 1 person

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