Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 24 December 2013

Road death debacle: government mediocrity at its best

For the past few years I have written articles on the shocking reality and reasons behind the carnage and death on our roads and each year it’s a case of déjà vu with regard to the road death count. For decades now, we have heard the same rhetoric and chants from the Department of Transport about how we will tackle the shameful carnage on our roads and each year nothing really happens, except our South African road death toll continues to climb.

The start of this summer season has been no different and the unconvinced public can again predict that South Africa will again suffer the horrific scourge of another 14,000 plus deaths on our roads in 2014. What are the reasons for this grotesque and presumptuous outlook? Simply put, we have a transport ministry and road traffic management department that has no meaningful concept of accountability and ownership of the problem.

This is clear from the comments made in public by our authorities in the past and in recent times that the problems will prevail. Our past Minister of Transport, Ben Martins said on 9 December 2012 that “law enforcement officers are not solely responsible for curbing accidents. Road users themselves have to make a conscious decision not to break the law on the road.”

This year, on 21 December 2013, we have Minister Dipuo Peters commenting, “Prayer and God’s hands of mercy were necessary because the government’s messages were not yielding the desired results in reducing the number of accidents on the country’s roads…. It is of great concern to us that our education and enforcement messages fall short of reaching every road user. We believe more can and needs to be done to wrestle the monstrous carnage on our roads”

More needs to done all right, but let’s stop talking. Three years into the “Decade of Road Safety” campaign and three Transport Ministers later, our Government-driven campaigns have seriously lacked action. It helps not to say the motorists are at fault and they don’t listen to education messages. The reality is that our unacceptably high road death toll is precisely because the law enforcement officers are not doing their job – all year round.

South Africa’s road accident death rate is among the highest in the world at over 200 deaths per 100,000 vehicles. A survey conducted by leading research group TNS South Africa over a year ago demonstrated conclusively that the problem is seen as critical by the public and in desperate need of solution and that 81% of those polled believed that better law enforcement is by far a better solution.

In 2011, our Minister of Transport, S’bu Ndebele, suggested we reduce the speed limit to address road accidents. My, my, my, are we good at clutching at straws as opposed to being serious about tackling the real issues of road carnage. Our current speed limits are safe and are not the problem here. What we urgently need is strong leadership with a proactive approach to address these problems.

While an improved consistent “zero tolerance” law enforcement approach is one required area of action, our problems require an holistic approach over a longer period to be effective and we trust that Minister Peter’s planned action committee is able to get to the heart of the issues and introduce sustainable and effective processes. Our road safety issues involve not only the general disregard for the rules of the road (especially prevalent among taxi drivers and now emulated by growing numbers of “non-taxi” motorists), but also matters such as un-roadworthy vehicles, overloaded and unlicensed vehicles, unlicensed drivers, motorists under the influence of alcohol and a worrying growth in lawlessness on our roads.

To address these problems requires well-trained, incorruptible and professional policing manpower and resources. Not more police, but more effective policing with strong leadership to drive a hard work attitude and the courage to tackle the problems head on.

Brazil has a very similar taxi industry to ours, but theirs functions with exemplary efficiency and observance of road regulations. It is also worth noting that Brazil, which has a population of over 200 million people (nearly four times our population), has a road traffic death rate of roughly 75 for every 100,000 vehicles a year, which is almost two thirds lower than ours in South Africa which stands at just over 200 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles. Argentina has even better results. We could learn a lot from our South American colleagues.

The idea of the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) when it was set up over a decade ago was a good one at the time, but to date, it has really not achieved much. A case of another state owned entity that has failed to deal with a serious issue. The RTMC has continuously lacked leadership, capacity and the teeth required to standardise processes and ensure excellence into road traffic law enforcement. This in turn allows the metros and municipalities to continue doing their own thing and running roughshod over the guidelines and regulations for standardised enforcement.

What the authorities need to understand is that you can have all the rules and laws you want, but these are of no consequence if they are not effectively governed and enforced.

Another related matter requiring serious intervention is the insatiable desire of metros and municipalities to use camera traps and traffic policing to swell their municipal coffers, at the expense of road safety. In the UK, some municipalities have outlawed camera trapping because it does not serve the purpose for which it is intended – improved road safety conditions.

Then there is the issue of the horrific deterioration of our municipal and rural road conditions, road signage, road markings and dire traffic light problems. These are also very serious issues arising from deteriorating public service delivery, which adds fuel to the road carnage fire.

Will 2014 see a concerted effort and action by our transport authorities to reduce death on our roads? Looking around us, sadly I don’t see the strong public service leadership in this space. So, once again, I bow my head in sorrow, shame and disgrace that we will not witness the necessary action to reduce the needless volume of road death that will haunt our country for another year. Will society and business organisations become active citizens and hold the authorities to account for the taxes we spend in this space every year? Somehow I think not, but I sincerely hope to be proved wrong. DM

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