January 18, 2019

Carnage on the roads

The recent festive season seems to have been a particularly bloody one on our roads.  We don’t have the final statistics yet, but between 1 and 18 December 800 people had died, a 16% increase over the corresponding period in 2017.

Of course, the problem is not only over periods such as the festive season and the Easter weekend. Naturally, because of high traffic volumes, there are more accidents over these periods, but looking at the year as a whole, the picture is not pretty.

14 050 people died on our roads in 2017 – that is an average of 1 170 per month. 1 527 people died during the 2017 festive period. If you consider that this period was from 1 December 2017 to 9 January 2018 and take into account the effect that the higher traffic volumes will have, the peak seasons are not much worse than any other time on our roads.  But it seems that it is only over the peak seasons that the authorities – and the media – pay much attention to behaviour on our roads, and that is part of the problem.

As reported by EWN on 23 December 2018, the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) thinks that improving the skills levels and the ability of drivers will solve the problem. And the way the RTMC intends achieving this improvement is by making drivers take the K53 test every 5 years. As reported by EWN, the RTMC’s Simon Zwane made some startling statements. “Most accidents are caused by young drivers.”  “The number of accidents cause by small vehicles (I assume cars) is up to 47%”. Really? Unless it is a self-driving Tesla, how does vehicle cause an accident? And assuming that he meant that most accidents were caused by the drivers of small vehicles, where is the evidence?

I can readily believe that most people who are injured and/or killed in accidents were occupants of cars (as opposed to motorcycles, mini-buses, buses and trucks) for the simple reason that there are many times more cars on the road than other vehicles. But to assume that the accidents were caused by the drivers of all cars involved in accidents, as Mr Zwane seems to, is nonsensical.

Then we have that hoary old chestnut that speeding (i.e. driving at a speed in excess of the posted speed limit) is a leading cause of road accidents, according to the Department of Transport. Rubbish. Driving at a speed that is excessive under the circumstancesIS a leading cause of accidents. But a speed that is excessive under the circumstances is not determined by the posted speed limit; it is determined by…, well, the circumstances. Driving at 90 km/h on a highway is not breaking the speed limit – but is sure as hell dangerous if the general traffic is flowing at 60 km/h. By the same token, driving your expensive German motor car at 200 km/h on an empty eight lane highway at 6am on a Sunday morning is certainly illegal – but not, in itself, particularly dangerous.

While you obviously do need a level of skill to pass a driving test, that skill is developed over time. Re-testing drivers will not make the slightest difference to our accident statistics. And how the RTMC thinks this will work in practice, when the system cannot cope with testing new drivers, is beyond me.

By far the predominant cause of the carnage on our roads is that there are a significant number of road users who have no regard for the safety of other road users. And I am not only talking about drivers – I include the taxi or commercial vehicle owner who puts a driver behind the wheel of his vehicle; or the parent who lets his child drive without a license; or the person who watches his mate get behind the wheel of his car after one tequila too many – yes, even that person! Feeling uncomfortable?

And I am convinced that these are not the majority of road users (although they are an uncomfortably high proportion).  Take note on your next journey. It is may be one out of 10 cars that are weaving through the traffic, skipping traffic lights or jumping queues. But that 10 percent can cause a hell of a lot of accidents!

The only way to significantly reduce the death toll on our roads is to change drivers’ attitudes. The first way to do this is through driver education. We need a training system that is more concerned about instilling consideration, patience and tolerance in prospective drivers than whether they should walk around the car clockwise or anti-clockwise when they check the tyres. And this should not be left to the driving schools whose sole aim is to get the pupil through the test as quickly as possible at all costs – it should start at school level.

The other way to change drivers’ attitudes and, therefore their behaviour, is through effective law enforcement. People behave like they do on our roads because they don’t believe that they will be caught.  And, if they are caught, they don’t believe that there will be any consequences. During December I played golf with a friend of mine who was visiting from the UK.  At the 19thhole he observed the other golfers imbibing rather freely and asked if they weren’t concerned about drink-driving. One of the chaps was quite happy to admit that he had been caught five times, but just bribed his way out of it; and on one occasion his doctor managed to make the sample disappear! My friend was horrified – in the UK, he told me, you just don’t do it. If you do, you WILL get caught; and if you get caught, you WILL lose your license. And there is a good chance that you will go to prison, too – and it does not have to be your fifth offence or involve a fatal accident for that to happen, as is the case in South Africa!

We don’t need any changes in our road traffic legislation and regulations. You can make the speed limit 40 km/h on the highway and you can make the allowable alcohol limit zero, but if people do not think they will be caught or punished for breaking the law, they will break it.  What we need is for our existing road rules to be enforced visibly, effectively and consistently.

I am not impressed when I read that five people were arrested for speeding on a Sunday morning. I will be impressed when I read that people have been arrested for reckless driving when they cut other drivers off or when they drive in the wrong lane to jump queues.  I want to see traffic police pulling people over and fining them for not moving over on the freeway when other drivers want to pass them, for not yielding to pedestrians at pedestrian crossings and for not having their children securely strapped in. And for being impatient with learner drivers.

 

I don’t want to read about road blocks only at Easter and Christmas time. Throughout the year I want to see police stopping cars leaving golf and other sports clubs, sporting events, nightclubs and other entertainment venues to check that the drivers are not under the influence.  I want road users to be able to report others’ bad driving and know that it will be dealt with.

I want safer roads.

 

Robin Twaddle

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