Africa, Headlines

TRANSPORT: Carnage on South Africa’s Roads

Anthony Stoppard

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 2 2003 (IPS) - Death and destruction on the country’s roads are a tradition in South Africa during the festive season – and this year the celebrations have reached new heights.

Many South African drivers take pride in speeding, driving recklessly and defying the government’s efforts to make the country’s roads safer. Drivers are regularly caught travelling at speeds of over 200 kilometres an hour, and it is increasingly common for traffic officials to handout fines of over R10,000 (around 1,200 U.S. dollars) for speeding.

‘’Just as we began to utilise our hi-tech equipment and slap offending motorists with heavy fines we have learnt with shock that most South African companies budget for traffic fines as part of their senior management operating costs. This has helped us to understand the contempt and arrogance with which some of these offending motorists buy their freedom,” says S’bu Ndebele, in charge of transport, for the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

‘’Even as they leave the scene, they leave at great speed. The fines do not serve as a deterrent at all,” he says.

Because KwaZulu-Natal is the country’s most popular holiday destination, there is exceptionally high traffic on its roads during the festive season. So far this season, the province has the highest accident and death rate in the country.

By Monday (Jan 2), the death toll on South African roads since the start of the festive season was over 1,070 – about 25 percent higher than during the same period last year. Many of the dead were pedestrians who were knocked over while walking along, or crossing, roads.

More worrying, the season is not yet at an end, and the majority of those who left their homes in the industrial and financial centres in the interior of South Africa for a holiday on the coast, must still return.

This migration is normally accompanied by a further increase in the accident rate. The South African holiday season runs roughly from Dec 1 to the end of first week of January, every year.

Almost half of those who have died are between the ages of 17 and 40 part of the economically active section of the country. This has serious implications for the future of the economy, warn officials from the national Department of Transport.

Beside the determination of South African drivers to hurry to their deaths, there are a number of other reasons for the carnage on the country’s roads.

Drinking and driving is a major problem, with half the victims of road accidents in the country’s mortuaries having blood-alcohol levels way beyond the legal limit, says the South African Medical Research Council.

Badly trained and corrupt traffic officials responsible for maintaining order on the country’s roads are another problem. Traffic officials are only checking to see if vehicles are speeding and not if the driver is sober or the car is roadworthy, say officials in the Department of Transport.

Vehicle defects, like faulty breaks and worn tyres are another major cause of traffic accidents in South Africa. Busses and mini-bus taxis, a popular form of transport in South Africa, are very often guilty of faulty breaks and worn tyres, and accident involving these vehicles often result in the multiple deaths as many as ten at a time.

Non-governmental road safety organisations allege that many traffic officers are corrupt and often let speedsters, unsafe vehicles and drunk drivers off the hook for a bribe as small as R50 (about 6 U.S. dollars). They add that traffic officers take the bribes because they are poorly paid. Also, South Africa has few traffic officers to effectively patrol the country’s roads, add the road-safety organisations.

Because of the seemingly poor success of the government’s efforts to change the attitudes of South African drivers – through the ‘’Drive Alive” road safety awareness campaign – transport officials are calling for the adoption of harsher measures.

‘’What keeps the American, Australian or European driver from reckless driving is not sainthood but the ever present possibility of loosing their licence. Whether your company has budgeted for your traffic, if you drive recklessly we have only two choices, to allow you to continue killing and maiming other people or suspending or cancelling your licence. We choose the latter. We cannot bring back the dead but we can drastically reduce the carnage,” warns Ndebele.

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