Last week's column in praise of taxis prompted a great deal of noise about how dangerous taxis are, and why one shouldn't defend the thugs that cause such carnage.
Being a diligent sort, I paused to check the numbers. Good research on the subject is hard to come by, but I did find a few interesting statistics which lead to the surprising conclusion that if you want to live, you're better off taking a taxi to work than driving in your own car.
Here's the gist. Of the 36 fatalities on South Africa's roads every day, three occur in taxi-related incidents. Since roughly a third of all road deaths are pedestrians, and the remainder don't make a major statistical impact (sorry, cyclists), we can attribute about one eighth of vehicle-related traffic deaths to minibus taxis.
Now a quarter (25%) of all commuters use taxis, compared to about a third (32%) who use cars. Leaving out pedestrians (23%) as before, and adding other vehicles like trains and buses (if only to bias the data against taxis), this leaves about half of all commuters (52%) who neither walk nor take taxis.
A little long division produces this surprising conclusion: taxis are more than three times safer than other modes of vehicle commuting.
Despite this fact, a survey of attitudes commissioned a few years ago by the Department of Transport reports that half of all commuters consider safety to be the most important factor in travel choice. Nationally, the single biggest worry cited by commuters is taxi safety and driver behaviour.
This mirrors the prejudice of those who commented on my own column on taxis: they're dangerous death traps!
Nope, sorry, but it would appear they're not.
While digging out the numbers for this little exercise, I came across a lot of other interesting data. One of them is that for all the noise of the Arrive Alive campaign, holiday seasons appear to have little to do with traffic fatalities.
It is true that, on average over the last three years, December accounted for about 10% of all road deaths. However, that's not a great deal more than the one-twelfth a perfectly flat distribution would suggest, and the supposed carnage over the Easter holiday doesn't even register in the monthly traffic fatality statistics.
Moreover, even December's higher death toll is hard to pin down. The worst month for both drivers and passengers in 2009 was September. Pedestrians made up the numbers in December. In 2008, pedestrians had their worst month in July, passengers in October, and drivers in June.
Trying to get a grip on what happens in holiday destinations sheds just as little light on the problem. In Kwazulu-Natal, for example, December was only sixth in the fatality ranking for last year. March was the worst month, followed by May and August. In the Western Cape, the pattern appears to follow the holidays a bit more closely, but still, December was only the third-worst month. In 2008, May, July and August were Gauteng's months of death. In 2009, November and December took those dubious honours.
What gives? Such inconsistency in the statistics suggests that there is something else at work here besides careless holiday makers. When other sources of variability in the data can obscure the supposedly awful December statistics half the time, why does the Arrive Alive campaign make so much noise during the holidays, and go so silent for the rest of the year?
As if the government's scare-programme and its apparently opportunistic traffic law enforcement over the holidays isn't bad enough, we get sanctimonious advertising campaigns from alcohol pushers like Brandhouse.
Why does anyone think it acceptable to terrify people during the festive season with advertisements that suggest gang-rape in prison is an acceptable penalty for drink-driving?
Don't get me wrong. Driving drunk is a bad idea. One might quibble about how low the legal blood-alcohol limit has become – and I do, if only on the basis that it is lower even than the benchmark laid down by the World Health Organisation, and even just sharing a bottle of wine over dinner makes you a criminal these days.
However, there is no excuse for drunk driving. It should be illegal on the principle that the lives and property of other people are unreasonably jeopardised by the actions of the irresponsible person. The same goes for any other dangerous driving or unsafe vehicles.
But illegal is a long way from threatening people with rape in AIDS-infested prisons. That constitutes inhumane punishment which does not fit the crime. Presumably, the same people who made that advertisement are abhorred by the notion of using "enhanced interrogation techniques" to extract information from terrorists. Some consistency in their moral sensitivities would be welcome, especially if you're going to preach to the rest of us.
It should be acknowledged that South African road safety statistics are far from comforting. Overall, our road accident fatality rate in 2009 was 27.9 per 100,000 population, which is high even compared to the low-income country average of 21.5 per 100,000. (This last number is suspect, because the source, the World Health Organisation, admits only 22% of countries keep detailed accident fatality statistics.)
The South African fatality rate is a slight decrease over the previous year, and improvement is the general trend in the last few years. Still, it is uncomfortably high, and this is just as much a cause for concern as the fact that traffic accidents account for 25% of all injury mortality worldwide.
However, if you're concerned about this, a little factual perspective can't hurt.
Here's my advice. Relax, and enjoy your holiday. The rest of the year is stressful enough without being kept awake over Christmas by terrifying visions of road carnage and gang rape.
Pay attention to road safety, especially when Arrive Alive and the rest of the nanny-state crew can't be bothered to make a big deal of it. You're not much less likely to die on the road at any other time of the year.
And if you're really worried about staying alive out there, take a minibus taxi. DM
If you're bored, or feel like analysing the numbers in more detail, here are some statistical sources for this column: Department of Transport, First National Household Travel Survey, 2003 (PDF); Road Traffic Management Corporation, Road Traffic Report, 2009 (PDF); Arrive Alive's minibus taxi safety page; World Health Organisation, Global Status Report on Road Safety, 2009.
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