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Traffic congestion in Nairobi: health implications

The city of Nairobi has been growing exponentially since independence. The population has grown from about 350,000 in 1963 to over 3 million today. Vehicular numbers have steadily increased too, with Nairobi estimated to host about 30% of all vehicles registered in Kenya. The transport infrastructure has not kept the same pace of growth, hence the choking traffic congestion in the city.

IBM’s international traffic study ranked Nairobi as the 4th most gruelling commute out of 20 global cities in 2010, topping the list with Moscow with longest traffic jams averaging 2.1 hours.

Congested traffic has many drawbacks from an economic viewpoint. Time wasted in traffic jams translates into reduced productivity, higher fuel consumption, increased vehicular wear and tear, and many spillover effects. What about harmful health effects? Traffic Psychology studies show detrimental health effects of being stuck in traffic. The extreme is road rage, whose regular experience is extremely dangerous to human health.

Road rage is the irrational surge of anger towards another motorist. It varies in the response, which can range from a rude gesture or shouting to a full confrontation outside of the vehicle. The initial aggressive stimulation is very harmful to the body, especially if experienced on a recurrent basis. Anger is accompanied by release of stress hormones into the blood system, which is harmful to the heart and other functions of the body. One gets into a fight or flight situation, which in extremes is like driving under the influence.

Once high levels of the flight hormone adrenaline are pumped into the blood stream, all sorts of things can happen. Angry drivers become stressed, anxious, agitated and their hearts beat faster. They overestimate their own driving skills, believing other road users to be less adequate. This further escalates into loss of concentration and to accidents, which at worst can be fatal. In extremes, drivers will get out of their cars for a physical confrontation, as happens in the US about 1200 times a year. Children are not spared either, they have to contend with awakening early and arriving home late, with untoward psychological health effects and poor performance at school.

Even though most untoward health effects resulting from traffic congestion are transient, recurrent experiences can lead to longer term consequences. Psychological and emotional disturbances may ensue, and physical effects of daily stress may manifest in cardiovascular and other organ dysfunction. Whilst County authorities must invest in modern traffic management systems and public transport, individuals can take some steps to help themselves out. There are plenty of psychological coping strategies to mitigate against stressful situations. Flexible working hours, working from home, car-pooling or simply leaving the car at home on certain days may play some role. We can chose to take some actions, or the city will soon grind into a huge parking lot, with unhealthy individuals trapped in big four-wheelers.

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