Driving at night is difficult everywhere in the world. As the sun comes down, the light gets in your eyes; as darkness spreads, your peripheral vision shrinks. In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, however, being on the roads as night falls feels more than just testing; it feels positively dangerous. According to data from the World Health Organisation, of the ten countries with the most traffic deaths relative to population, eight are in Africa and Kenya is among them. Given that most Africans still live in the countryside, where hardly anyone owns a car, that is particularly terrifying.
Some problems are simply those of a developing country: the roads are potholed and there isn’t much street lighting, so pedestrians run across the highway in the dark. But the main reason is that as you crawl along, half of the time you cannot see the road ahead of you, because of the blinding dazzle of oncoming cars, all driving with their headlights, foglights and any other lights they might have proudly on full beam. How does any reasonable driver react to this situation? Well if the reasonable driver is anything like me, he puts his headlights on full too.
I have become obsessed with the way everyone drives with their headlights on full, even though it makes life harder for everybody else. When a friend revealed he had bought a car with extraordinarily powerful Chinese LED lights to one-up even the brightest contenders, I began to call it the “theory of the full-beam headlights”. And I think it helps to explain a lot of dysfunction in African cities in general.
The inspiration for this idea comes from the lead character of Joseph Heller’s novel, “Catch 22”, Yossarian. An American bombardier in Italy in the second world war, he tells his superior he is not flying any more missions. “From now on I’m thinking only of me.” “But, Yossarian,” his superior responds, “suppose everyone felt that way?” “Then,” says Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”
What Yossarian describes – the situation where you’re a fool to act unselfishly – is what economists call the “globally inferior Nash equilibrium”. Given that everyone else is behaving badly, you’re an idiot not to. Yet if everybody could resist the urge to behave selfishly, everybody would be better off. Hence the full-beam headlights. If most Kenyan drivers dipped their lights, everybody would be able to see. But nobody does it because nobody else does.
This applies to more than just driving. Nobody likes paying taxes, but it feels lot more of an imposition when you know that people far richer than you aren’t bothering. So too if you’re a politician and everybody else is stealing from the national treasury: you’re an idiot if you don’t get your share. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they even have a name for this behaviour, which could come from “Catch 22”: Article 15, a mythical part of the constitution which reads simply, “fend for yourself”.
Why do people in some countries behave this way when in others they don’t? It is about trust. In Britain, you trust that most people will follow the informal social laws that make society work – such as forming an orderly queue at the post office. And when everyone else is following the rules, you feel ashamed not to – not least because of social pressure. Think of the burrowing stares and tutting when you answer a phone call in the quiet carriage.
In many African countries, it is the opposite. Pollsters show that people in Kenya have some of the lowest levels of trust in the world. According to one poll by Pew, just 25% of people agreed with the statement “most people in society are trustworthy”; in Sweden, the figure was 78%. And so the rules that make society work break down. Politicians who steal are not chastised but reelected, providing that they redistribute some of the spoils to their immediate voters. Shame comes from failing to get the most out of the system, instead of from being a functional part of it. And everyone is worse off – not least drivers, blinded by cars coming in the opposite direction.