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From driving under the influence to reckless behaviour, Nicro helps road offenders change their ways

From driving under the influence to reckless behaviour, Nicro helps road offenders change their ways
Nicro personnel at the organisation‘s 113th birthday celebration in Cape Town on 6 September 2023. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

The National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders turned 113 this month. The organisation celebrated its award-winning programmes’ 97% success rate since 2021, helping 2,044 court referrals – offenders who learnt more about road offences and used the new knowledge to make the roads a safer place.

Over the years, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) has identified a concerning pattern in road offences in South Africa, including reckless driving, drunk driving, negligent driving and driving without a licence. 

Ten years ago, the organisation came up with an innovative programme to help curtail road offences.

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Nicro CEO Betzi Pierce. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

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Clinical unit coordinator Magda Reynolds at Nicro’s 113th birthday celebration in Cape Town on 6 September 2023. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

Nicro CEO Betzi Pierce and clinical unit coordinator Magda Reynolds recently celebrated the organisation’s 113 years of operating at their Cape Town offices. They reflected on Nicro’s impact on road offence prevention in the country through two of its programmes, “Shifting Gears” and “Choosing the High Road”.

Shifting Gears is a programme where road offenders are educated about road conditions after being referred to Nicro by the courts. The programme’s spinoff, Choosing The High Road, was founded in 2020 and aims to teach drivers about road offences to prevent them from occurring.

Shifting Gears has been around for the past 10 years and originated in the Cape Town office in partnership with social workers, law enforcement officers and the Department of Transport. 

“When an arrest has taken place, the referral comes from the court after the merits of the case have been considered. When there has been no arrest, private individuals or companies approach us for the preventative programme, ‘Choosing the High Road’.

“We ran this last year with some high schoolers as well in preparation for them getting their licences,” said Reynolds.

Due to their success, the Nicro team was invited to Germany in June this year to present the Shifting Gears programme at the German Crime Intervention Congress.

“Germany was looking for papers on innovative programmes, so we wrote to them about both our traffic programmes, ‘Shifting Gears’, which is the one where we do treatment after the fact of committing the crime, and ‘Choosing the High Road’, which is the preventative programme,” said Pierce.

Nicro also won an award from SA Breweries for its innovative programmes.

“If you look around, nobody else has a programme, and this one is so successful… because of the success of ‘Shifting Gears’, ‘Choosing the High Road’ was formed and SAB also asked for that, so we sent in a paper on what we had done and what it is about,” said Pierce. 

“We were one of five organisations in South Africa that got an award for ‘Best Innovative Programme’, and we got some money for it and free business coaching, which all contributes towards Nicro’s further development.”


Nicro social workers and law enforcement officers attend the organisation‘s 113th birthday celebration in Cape Town on 6 September 2023. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

“SAB came to Nicro and said that they have such a big problem with drunk driving especially, and there was a lot of carnage on the road because of that. They wanted a programme because they could not seem to stop the problem, so they wanted people to understand the seriousness of the offence,” said Pierce.

After implementing the programme, the team did a review and found it had been a success.

“It was 97% successful only because the other 3% of the participants either did not complete or did not comply or they committed another offence, but not one of the others committed another road offence. 

“The 97% showed complete behavioural changes in that they would not drive after they have had a drink… not even one drink. There were also changes in their family lives as well as their work environment, which was a huge spinoff of the programme,” said Pierce.

Understanding the costs

A participant in Nicro’s Shifting Gears programme wrote to the organisation and its donors to thank them for helping them unlearn bad habits and realise the severity of driving while under the influence of alcohol. The letter reads:

“Dear Nicro funder and donor, as a delegate I ask that you: Go on, increase your funding for the ‘Shifting Gears’ Nicro programme. It changes lives. Yes, know that the ‘Shifting Gears’ Nicro programme delivers and with your support behind this programme it has the potential to deliver impact at scale.

“My tolerance for driving under the influence was a behaviour learned from my father. My friends embedded the same tolerance when I observed them driving under the influence of alcohol. This programme’s cornerstone of Head, Heart and Hand – the progress from Consideration to Action – demonstrates that new action only comes from new thinking. 

“The ‘Shifting Gears’ Nicro programme teaches a ‘new knowledge’ and a new ‘rational perspective’ that supports my behaviour change.

“Coming out, I am clear: The cost is too high; there are no benefits to drunk driving. There are only costs to drunk driving. These costs make the choice to drive under the influence of liquor irrational. The combination of liquor and driving only increases road safety risk and harm. 

“It is a criminal act that in many cases accompanies hard financial, physical (significant injury) and mental consequences. These consequences affect more than just the drunk driver, but society at large.”

Nicro clients are referred by magistrates through a series of steps, but if a driver injures or kills someone on the road, that would lead to a sentence rather than a referral to Nicro.

Reynolds said referral depends on “whether there have been previous offences. If there have been previous offences, did the person receive any intervention? For example, even if they have been arrested twice, did they actually receive any help or not?”

Cape Town Mayco member for safety and security, JP Smith, revealed that five years ago, the Traffic Service recorded two-and-a-half million road offences in the space of a year, including dangerous overtaking, not wearing a seatbelt, overloading, drunk driving and vehicle impoundments. 

By 2022, the number of road offences had increased to 3.7 million, said Smith.

The pandemic impacted on some categories, like arrests made and warrants executed, but we are noticing an upward trajectory once more. And while there are likely more cars on our roads than there were five years ago, particularly because of the collapse of the rail system, it’s still no excuse or justification.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rehabilitation school for road traffic offenders?

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Senior City of Cape Town traffic officer and Nicro volunteer Oscar Frantze. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

Oscar Frantz, a City of Cape Town senior traffic officer and volunteer at Nicro, has been with the organisation since 2016 and educates road offenders to help them understand the programme. He does this over a cup of coffee.

Frantz explains that this way works best as he wants the offenders to see him as a person and not just see the uniform. This way they will not fear him, but rather understand him.

“Shifting Gears has not only changed the mindset of the guys assigned to Nicro, but it has shifted my mind as well – as an officer rendering a better service out there.”

Pierce said the participation of law enforcement officers in the programme was transforming the lives of those who were interested in helping themselves and creating safer road conditions for everyone.

“There was a huge improvement in the way people saw the officers and that was a big surprise to us … we were very happy to see that. We realised that the reason for this is because we are very involved with the traffic officers. They will come and do a session in our programme and talk to the people over coffee,” said Pierce.

Reynolds explained that drivers who find themselves being pulled over by unmarked police vehicles, commonly known as the “ghost squad”, are often under the impression that they are being hijacked. This misunderstanding can lead to dangerous attempts to flee.

“Additionally, a lesser-known by-law within the City of Cape Town empowers law enforcement officials to impound cellphones when drivers are pulled over for cellphone use. Unfortunately, this regulation is frequently unknown to the public, leading to confrontations with law enforcement and subsequent charges of obstruction of duty of a police officer.

“In light of these critical issues and the decline in road offence referrals nationally from 2021 to 2023, Nicro has taken proactive steps to develop a preventative programme that will address these knowledge gaps and misconceptions head-on,” said Reynolds.

The number of national Nicro road offence referrals by magistrates has declined, with DUI referrals declining from 304 in 2021 to 274 in 2023. 

The number of referrals for driving without a licence decreased to seven in 2023 from 10 in 2022. Negligent driving saw a decrease in referrals from 39 in 2022 to 34 in 2023. Reckless driving saw a referral decrease of 180, from 335 in 2022 to 155 in 2023.

“Nicro remains dedicated to its mission of reducing road offences, promoting safer driving behaviours, and ultimately contributing to the wellbeing of our communities.

“We invite the public to participate in this innovative programme and take an active role in making our roads safer for all,” said Reynolds. DM


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