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South Africa’s road death statistics are appalling: Here’s a way to bring them down

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By Fred Nel
11 Dec 2019 0

Fred Nel is the DA's shadow MEC for Transport in Gauteng.

The annual cost to the economy of road accidents on South African roads is estimated to be in excess of R164-billion. Clearly there is a major road safety problem, and it needs to be addressed.

One of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals is to halve road traffic deaths by 2020. However, in South Africa, road deaths over the last three years have seen an upward trend. The increase in the death toll in December 2018 alone was 5% compared to the same period in 2017.

A 2018 report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the “Global Status Report on Road Safety”, cites road deaths as the leading cause of death among people aged between 5 and 29 years, and the eighth leading cause of death in the world. In the same report, South Africa is ranked number 159 of the 175 countries surveyed. South Africa’s December road death toll is more than that of most countries annually. South Africa’s road death toll expressed as a number per 100,000 inhabitants, is higher than the world and Africa’s averages.

The annual cost to the economy of road accidents on South African roads is estimated to be in excess of R164-billion. Clearly there is a major road safety problem, and it needs to be addressed.

The Haddon Matrix, designed by William Haddon to promote injury prevention, and which is also applied to other fields posing physical injury risk, consists of nine elements related to preventing crashes, mitigating damage caused by crashes and treatment of injuries after a crash.

Since prevention is better than cure, and more cost-effective, it is prudent to measure the South African road safety environment against the remaining preventative elements identified by Haddon as well as the WHO report.

The WHO report identifies three important elements, two aligned to the Haddon Matrix, that need to be present in order to improve road safety.

The first major element that needs to be in place is strict legislation that regulates speed limits, curbs drunk driving and prescribes the use of safety devices like seat belts and restraints for children. In most of these instances, South African laws seem to be at the required level with one or two exceptions. So, it can be argued that this element is in place.

The problem with the legislation in South Africa is not that it is insufficient, but that it is not enforced. Due to bribery and corruption, a very large number of offenders get off and when caught, the justice system is just too slow to deal with offenders and is further hamstrung by botched investigations that compromise cases.

To deal with bribery and corruption, we require stricter sanctions for officers caught taking bribes and licensing officials who sell drivers’ licences. Both types of civil servants contribute towards the deaths on our roads and should be severely punished for their contribution.

The second important element relates to the condition of roads used by motorists, pedestrians and motorcyclists. The WHO report, in line with the Haddon Matrix, indicates that the correct planning and design of roads and roadsides, and regular assessment of road conditions for maintenance needs to be standard practice to promote road safety.

Third, the human factors that contribute to accidents and that can be mitigated through training and education, are attitude and behaviour towards road safety. Road safety is already part of the South African foundational school curriculum and education is widely accepted as one of the key measures that influence behaviour.

A longitudinal study by the SA roads agency, SANRAL, found that safety education should be implemented transversally across all school subjects in order to optimally influence behaviour and the attitudes of learners. It also found that the behaviour of parents plays a dominant role in influencing the attitudes of children. In light of these findings, it may still take some time until the behaviour of South Africans is fully influenced by a safety attitude as the message saturates through generations.

Another aspect is driver training, testing and licensing. This is one of the important deficiencies in the South African system. Although learner testing has improved slightly, the licensing regime effectively produces a driver after two short tests. This is not enough to judge whether a new driver has sufficient skills to safely drive on very busy roads.

The system should be changed to allow youth drivers to access off-road driving facilities where they can familiarise themselves with operating a vehicle in a safe environment. Further to this, once a driver has passed their first test, they should only be issued with a provisional licence for a period up to 24 months. If they were successful in driving without any accidents and/or fines issued, they can then conduct their final test to obtain a permanent licence.

Heavy vehicle drivers should only qualify for a heavy vehicle and public driving permit after having driven incident-free for a period of 24 months on a permanent licence.

All tests should be recorded electronically to eliminate bribery and if a licensed driver is involved in a serious accident, the recording of their test should be reviewed to ensure they were properly tested, holding the examiner responsible for the quality of the test.

Lastly, vehicle equipment is identified by the Haddon Matrix as an important contributor to preventing accidents and limiting injury. Specifically, the roadworthiness of vehicles.

One of the main reasons South Africans must renew their vehicle licences annually is to offer an opportunity for authorities to inspect vehicles for roadworthiness. Unfortunately, vehicle licence renewals have become more of an income generator so the original intent has been lost. Many countries have moved away from annual renewals to rather issue multi-year vehicle licences so as to reduce pressure on the system and allow for inspection of vehicles when licences are renewed. This is an option that needs to be seriously considered in South Africa.

Since the Haddon Matrix was developed, there have also been major advances in the development of safety technology in vehicles. Safety belts (restraints) are no longer the only other safety feature in a vehicle in addition to its lights and brakes. Technology like airbags, advanced braking systems, intelligent obstruction detection systems, rain-activated wipers, breathalyser activators and always-on headlights have already found their ways in various configurations into vehicles. Government regulation can require a minimum number of these technologies in new models sold to improve road safety.

Most of the elements contained in the WHO report and the Haddon Matrix are present in South Africa in one way or another. Unfortunately, corruption has crippled the system which regulates specifically law enforcement, issuing of drivers’ licences and ensuring vehicle roadworthiness. This cripples the system that must ensure safe roads.

More should also be done to improve transversal safety education in schools to influence attitudes and behaviour. The driver licence testing regime also requires a significant overhaul to ensure driver skill and safety behaviour improvements.

If these proposed changes are not taken seriously, there is very little chance that the road accident levels in South Africa will be halved as required by the Sustainable Development Goals. DM

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