June 20, 2018

Road deaths: Time to do something constructive

There was a time that the road death toll and gruesome car accidents only made the news over the December holidays and the Easter weekend. This slowly extended to all long weekends. Now, it seems, every weekend there is a spate of deadly and gruesome accidents across the country. How long before it is a daily occurrence?

Actually, let’s not use the word accident. An accident is something that happens despite you being careful. It is something that couldn’t really have been avoided. Most vehicle collisions CAN be avoided.

Whenever there is a particularly bad spate of fatal collisions (and the intervals are getting shorter), you hear cries for tougher laws. And the call is generally to change the laws relating to alcohol and speed – reduce the blood alcohol limit to zero; make the speed limit 15Km/h.

Yes, alcohol and inappropriate speed are major contributors to road collisions and the injuries and deaths that follow. But they are not the only factors; they are usually combined with other factors.  Sure, one or two beers does impair your concentration and your ability to react. But so does the argument you had with your spouse before leaving for work this morning. Or your anxiety over the presentation you have to make. But none of these should impair you to the point where you cannot avoid a collision.

Making the acceptable blood alcohol level zero or the general speed limit 30km/h is not going to make an iota of difference.  Because it is not the people who had a drink or two after golf or over dinner, or the people who are travelling at 120 km/h on the freeway while the traffic flow is also travelling at 120 who cause the collisions. The problem is those who are blind drunk behind the wheel; who are weaving through traffic at 60 km/h faster than the speed of the flow – whether they are doing 70 or 170, they are a danger; who are driving a bakkie with no taillights at 40km/h; who think that a red traffic light means you don’t need to stop unless you are the sixth car to reach the stop line after the light goes red.

We have the laws to, if not eliminate, at least drastically reduce our road death toll. If the National Road Traffic Act and regulations were adhered to by drivers and, more importantly, properly policed by the authorities, we could have among the safest roads in the world.

Just two sections of the National Road Traffic Act need to be followed and policed – section 63 – thou shalt not drive a vehicle on a public road recklessly or negligently (and recklessness is described as driving with “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of property or persons” – how much of that do you see on our roads!) and section 64 – thou shalt not drive a vehicle on a public road without REASONABLE CONSIDERATION for any other person using the road. Reasonable consideration?  Like giving a gap if someone indicates to change lanes? Just this section seems like the holy grail of road safety!

The regulations (all 346 of them) drill deeper. Did you know that it is an offence to HOLD a cellphone in your hand while driving? Just to hold it – never mind updating Facebook, taking selfies and Instagraming them and doing whatever else we do on our smartphones. And that you have a LEGAL OBLIGATION to move to the left lane on the freeway of someone indicates they want to pass? It is not just considerate, it’s the law. And yes, to the old farts in the SUVs who think they have a God-given duty to enforce speed limits, this applies even if you are doing 120.

Policing on our roads is noticeable by its absence. And when it is visible, it always seems to be checking licenses on the first of every month; or speed-trapping in places where it is almost dangerous to keep to the speed limit! Between my home and work there is a dual carriageway road with a 60 km/h speed limit. I have never seen a collision or evidence of one on that road. Outside peak hours one could safely do 80 or even 100 on that road. But Joburg metro regularly trap on it and do a roaring trade. Regularly.  A few hundred metres further, the road narrows to a single lane with no shoulder and is quite dangerous. I have never seen a speed trap there.

The Ghost Squad made headlines when they arrested Gareth Cliff for doing over 170 on a 4 lane highway at 1 pm a few years ago. Sure, he was exceeding the speed limit, but under the circumstances was he a danger to anyone? I have never seen anyone pulled over for weaving between traffic or hogging the overtaking lane – even when there have been cops on the road.

There have been several high profile cases in the press recently involving drivers sentenced to jail for culpable homicide. One was the chap who killed the cyclists in Umhlanga in February 2016. Another was the one who killed the Top Billing Presenter, Simba Mhere. The latter was proven to have been travelling at over 210 km/h at points before the collision and at 166 km/h at the time of the collision.  Do you really think it would have made a difference to him if the speed limit wasn’t 120, but 100? Or 80?

It seems that someone has to die before a reckless driver’s behaviour is punished. A couple of years ago my niece was involved in a collision. A very obviously drunk driver skipped a red light and hit her head on. She was badly bruised and shaken (while they prevent serious injuries, airbags can sure do some damage of their own!) but nothing serious. When Joburg Metro were phoned – and told that the guilty driver was drunk – they wanted to know if anyone was killed. When they were answered in the negative, they simply said they weren’t coming.

The carnage on our roads is fast becoming a national disaster. It is time for the authorities to do something EFFECTIVE about it.


Robin Twaddle
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