South Africa

Carnage on SA roads: What can be done?

By Rebecca Davis 13 November 2013

Tuesday morning brought the news that another 29 people had died in a road accident on Monday night, after a truck crashed into a bus on the notorious Moloto road in Mpumalanga. It’s just over two months since the last huge crash, in Pinetown, killed 23 and injured 80. These accidents prompt outpourings of grief and outrage, but nothing ever seems to change. What can be done to improve the safety of motorists and pedestrians on South Africa’s roads? By REBECCA DAVIS.

South Africa is a land of paradoxes, and one of these is evident when it comes to road safety. On the one hand we have a country in the grip of a terrible, seemingly never-ending road accident problem. Last year around 12,200 people died entirely avoidable deaths on South Africa’s roads. We know these stats, but it’s worth thinking about just how many that is: more than 33 deaths per day. This is, admittedly, lower than our annual instances of murder (16,250 in 2012/2013). But given that 60 – 70% of murders occur between people who know each other, it’s true to say that you’re much more likely to die on the road than to be murdered by a stranger.

Everyone knows we have this problem. In May the International Transport Forum found that South Africa ranked worst out of 36 countries for road fatalities. But on the other hand, we also have a country where traffic officers are the subject of some of the most bitter vitriol; where people swap stories with pride around braais of bribing traffic cops to escape punishment for traffic infringements; where drunk driving is in many contexts still socially acceptable; and where attempts to persuade drivers to modify their behaviour on the road seemingly come to naught. The extremely popular “Pigspotter” website and Twitter account specialises in informing drivers of how to avoid speed traps and roadblocks laid by the “pigs”.

An alternative national motto could be, it seems, “Don’t touch me on my motor”. Many middle-class motorists point at the taxi industry and at unroadworthy vehicles as being the source of most of South Africa’s road safety problems. This is partly valid – Arrive Alive estimates that three of the road deaths per day can be directly linked to taxis. But consider just how many wealthy, high-profile South Africans have made the news for dangerous driving.

5fm DJ Gareth Cliff, arrested in 2012 for driving at 182 km/h in a 120 km zone, is actually one of the tamer examples. Free State Minister for sports and recreation Dan Kgothule was caught doing 235 km/h in 2010. Lolly Jackson got done after being caught at 249 km/h in 2005. ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu was caught driving at three times over the legal alcohol limit in 2010. Who can forget Judge Nkola Motata’s little 2007 scene, where he crashed his Jaguar into a private home and then embarked on a drunken racist rant? Or Tony Yengeni’s twin DUI arrests?

Dangerous driving – whether by speeding, by driving drunk, or by driving an unroadworthy vehicle – is simply endemic, and to claim it is restricted to one particular portion of society is clearly untrue. Judging by the callers to talk radio shows, it is accompanied by an aggressive defensiveness towards attempts to persuade South African motorists to change their behaviour. To try to say that motorists cannot do precisely what they like behind the wheel seems in some cases to be interpreted as akin to wrestling away some hard-fought birthright.

A survey conducted late last year revealed that 81% of those members of the public polled thought the answer to our road safety problem was “better law enforcement”. It’s undoubtedly true that “well-trained and incorruptible policing manpower”, as OUTA’s Wayne Duvenhage put it last year, is currently widely lacked. (There are also currently only 18,000 traffic officials to police 10 million cars, according to a parliamentary briefing earlier this year.)

Traffic cops are widely perceived as corrupt, and in some cases this has been proven to be true. One high-profile recent demonstration of the breakdown in relationship between the public and traffic officials was the case of rugby player Bees Roux, who unintentionally killed a metro traffic cop who pulled him over and then tried to rob him.

As Duvenhage pointed out, the unlawful sale of drivers’ license is another factor to be cracked down on. But what certainly needs to accompany these steps is some kind of a sea-change in our cultural understanding of what driving means, which I suspect is tied up with deeply-cherished notions of individual freedom and autonomy.

At an ethics conference in Cape Town last week, activist and academic Rhoda Kadalie told an interesting story about visiting the University of Uppsala in Sweden to collect an honorary degree. After the ceremony, a grand function was held. Kadalie walked to her car afterwards and was surprised to see all the important Swedish guests walking out of the car park car-less. The social taboo against drunk driving, Kadalie said, is such that it would be unthinkable to get behind the wheel after a glass or two. “We just don’t do that,” a Swedish academic told her simply.

But the problem is of course not limited to the behaviour of motorists. Drunk and erratic pedestrians are a huge issue; over the Easter weekend this year 60% of fatalities were pedestrians. Then there’s the stuff that only the state can fix, like the conditions of the roads and in many cases the absence of legitimate public transport alternatives. The Department of Transport failed to respond to the Daily Maverick’s request for comment, but the DA’s Shadow Transport Minister Ian Ollis gave us a piece of his mind regarding the circumstances of Monday’s horror crash.

“The Moloto Road is the most dangerous road in South Africa,” Ollis said. “Government has been promising the construction of the Moloto Rail Corridor linking KwaNdebele to Pretoria since 2006 when the first budget was to be allocated for this project. The reason for this proposed train is the large number of people that need to be moved on our most dangerous road. Every morning from 2.30am, about 600 busses leave transporting people to their places of work in the Tswane Metro. The road is old and inadequate to deal with this mass movement of people. The train line would be faster, safer and vastly reduce the road deaths, including the Easter exodus to Moria.”

Ollis also suggested the national implementation of a system already in place in the Western Cape, whereby busses, taxis and bus drivers leaving on long distance trips are supposed to be subjected to a detailed inspection before the journey begins: “If they have a relief driver, if the vehicle has been fully inspected for roadworthiness and if all drivers’ licenses, vehicle licenses, public transport permits and the like are all in order”.

On the issue of motorist behaviour, Ollis suggests that speeding, alcohol abuse and driver fatigue should be monitored by 24-hour roadside inspections and roadblocks. To this, Alida Jones – CEO of non-profit Drive More Safely – adds that there should be a “zero-tolerance” approach to those committing serious road offences. “Court rolls are filled to capacity and traffic offences that kill people are thrown out because of a clever lawyer,” Jones told the Daily Maverick. “Zero tolerance and harsh penalties.”

Jones also wants to see a change to the law that permits motorists to drive any vehicle if they have a Code 14 license. “You should only be allowed to drive the vehicle for which you hold a valid license,” Jones says. “This is a cause of many road crashes as [drivers] are trained on a truck but their intention is to drive a car, and no training is given in a motor-car.”

Petro Kruger, a founding member of the Road Safety Foundation, told the Daily Maverick she believes that professional drivers should be better trained and regularly evaluated, with the drivers’ skills being rigorously tested before a permit is granted. Kruger also raised the issue of the operators of freight fleets and public transport vehicles, who he says should be held accountable and responsible if one of their vehicles is found to be unroadworthy. This was a point frequently made in the wake of the Pinetown crash in September, where there was a great deal of public sympathy expressed towards the driver of the faulty truck.

In addition, Kruger says, “Traffic law enforcement should be classified as an essential service and should be focused on visible and mobile law enforcement, not static speed measurement”. Transport Minister Dipuo Peters said in a media briefing in September that the department was looking into increasing the numbers and capacity of traffic personnel.

In the same briefing, the newly appointed Transport Minister Dipuo Peters spoke with evident distress about the challenges of her new role, in terms of facing up to the sheer scale of the carnage taking place on our roads every single day. The cost is not just human; South Africa loses an estimated R306 billion annually to its economy due to road crashes, if one factors in the loss of skills, emergency medical services, post-crash services and compensation paid out by the Road Accident Fund.

As December rolls around, we should all steel ourselves for the frightening litany of new deaths as people travel to their holiday destinations. The fact that this has come to be seen as an inevitable part of the South African calendar is terrifying in itself. Something has to change. The blood of our people is all over our roads. DM

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Photo: The scene of an accident near eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) in Mpumalanga on Monday, 21 May 2012 where seven people were killed and 17 others injured. Picture: Netcare 911/SAPA

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