South Africa’s road killings: A window into the lawless psyche of our nation

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As I write this article, newspaper headlines cover the death of Bavelile Hlongwa, Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy. Bavelile was killed on the same road where Minister Collins Chabane was killed in March 2015. The cause? A driver of a truck ploughed into a group of people helping at the scene of another car crash. The other, a truck that made a U-turn on an undivided freeway. In both instances these drivers did not follow the rules, nor did they respect them or their fellow road users.

Road fatalities are often highlighted when public figures are killed, or during the festive season and holidays such as Easter.  A sad reality is that April is not one of the worst months on our roads despite the number of fatalities – it stands in seventh place when compared to the other months of the year. December comes in at the highest, followed by the winter months.

I have been involved in the Road Safety environment for the past 25 years. I have analysed many road statistics, written various strategies and policies for different authorities, I drive an average of 35 000 km a year, and I am on several Whatsapp groups where Emergency Services report crashes, including the graphic and horrific photos that go with it. I bought a “Dashcam” three years ago to record people’s driver behaviour. I served on the Road Safety Advisory Council for three years. I regard myself as reasonably well informed in terms of the status of road crashes in our country.

The current key statistics on road crashes in South Africa are as follows:

Item Per year Per day
Crashes 827 116 2266
Serious injuries 62 084 170
Other injuries 201 098 551
Fatalities 13 497 37
Cost to the economy R157 billion R430 136 986
(RTMC data, all values averages for 4 years 2015 to 2018, Cost to the economy: 2016 Cost of crashes study, CSIR, adjusted to 2018 values)

There really isn’t a trend – the fatalities for 2016 and 2017 were higher than 14 000 per year. The other key statistics – the injuries and the cost to the economy, R430 million per day. This money can go far when it is spent productively. The economic impact does not get any media attention. The almost 2 300 crashes per day translates to 94 crashes per hour on average. Imagine a map that flashes a red light whenever a crash occurs – every 40 seconds a light will flash somewhere.

Do statistics like these still make us as South Africans sit up in shock? Or do they disappear amidst the 21 000 murders we had in the past year, daily news headlines of corruption and state capture, xenophobic attacks and the billions of Rand in bailouts required for Eskom and the SAA?

Various actions, projects and initiatives have been put in place.

So, what has been done in SA over the past 30 years to reduce crashes? Several reports have been generated (to name but a few national ones):

  • The 1991 Road Safety Strategy,
  • the 1996 Road Traffic Management Strategy,
  • the Road to Safety 2001 to 2005,
  • the National Road Safety Strategy – 2006 onwards,
  • the RTMC compiled a Road safety Strategy 2016, and
  • the Department of Transport compiled a Road safety Policy in 2016.

In 2019 the Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offenses (AARTO) Act was passed – the act originates from 1999.

There was also a Road Safety Summit in 2013, a Road Safety Advisory Council 2014 to 2017 was appointed by Minister Dipuo Peters (and then abandoned), a Road Safety Summit was held in 2015.

The United Nations declared a Decade of Action on Road Safety in 2010, with the aim to halve fatalities by 2020. We are 90% through the decade, and there is unfortunately no clear downward trend in South Africa.

Why didn’t these policies and strategies work?

My assessment is that the road safety challenge in South Africa is complex and is affected by many layers in our society. How children are taught at home, discipline in schools, road safety education in our schools, our driving instruction and tests (our novice drivers are for example never formally taught how to drive on a freeway or overtake on a rural road), the often corrupt systems to get a driver’s licence.

It is often simplified by a new Minister or new Head of Department into single silver bullet solutions – “Appoint more traffic officers” or handing out fines with a large entourage of journalists present. We had a minister who appeared in a television program to urge drivers to ensure their vehicles are road worthy. A national prayer day was held. One of the metros contacted me in early December 2018 to say they have R800 000 to spend on a road safety campaign – what should they do with the money? They ended up placing radio advertisements. There is a lot of general talk, policies and statements, but there is no real, sustainable implementation plan that will make a difference in the long term.

It is generally known that 90% or more of crashes are the result of human behaviour. The road and the condition of vehicles are sometimes contributing factors; however, this is generally a very small percentage. We live in a country where the general rule of law is not respected, as our President said on 15 September in Johannesburg addressing his party’s branches: “lawlessness needs to be tackled decisively.”

These screenshots from my dashcam illustrate the general lack of respect for the rules of the road – a vehicle skipping a red light, and a driver overtaking – at night – across a barrier line, in the face of oncoming traffic.

How do we change this behaviour? Another summit, another policy?  Will the demerit system that forms part of AARTO make a difference?  At a meeting I attended, an official of the Department of Transport is on record saying that: “Corruption in some traffic departments is institutionalised”.  If drivers know they can drive with no respect for the rules of the road, with no consequences, how will we reduce the 827 000 crashes a year?

Disrespect for the rules of the road must become socially unacceptable

Racism, xenophobia, gender-based violence are words that evoke an immediate outcry in our society. Words in anger on Twitter or Facebook with any of these slants, will be on the cover pages of our newspapers for weeks. All the relevant human rights organisations and political parties will in most cases immediately run to the courts.

Our daily acceptance of the road deaths reminds me of the words of Martin Luther King – “this is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”.

We need to act

As average South African citizens, we must report traffic violations. Each one of us must commit to stop at red lights and respect other drivers when we are on the road. Corrupt traffic officers need to be apprehended. Traffic offenders need to be punished – severely. We need leaders who will set the example. Imagine the impact if every day, our President, our ministers, premiers and mayors set the example of good driver behaviour. Our behaviour on our roads is a window into the psyche of our nation – if we address the lawlessness on our roads, it will address the lawlessness in many other aspects of our society.

By Jan Coetzee, Managing Director of Innovation Transport Solutions