Police had a hard time finding the prevalent drunk drivers blamed for high levels of road accidents, but people with drugs were arrested in droves.
Preliminary and incomplete numbers released by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa on Tuesday showed that the South African Police Service (SAPS) arrested far more people with drugs than for driving drunk over the December/January holidays – despite drunk drivers being considered a major cause of the deaths of about 1 465 people over that period.
Transport Minister Ben Martins last week said his department was considering introducing a new legal limit for blood alcohol in drivers: zero. Police arrested either 2 751 or 2 856 people for drunk driving over the 2012 festive season, depending on who you listen to; numbers from the SAPS and the transport ministry differ. Over the same period, the total number of people arrested for “drug-related” crime, mostly possession of dagga, tik and nyaope, was 8 800 – more than three times those caught driving drunk.
Drugs are a major driver of crime, Mthethwa said.
The numbers imply that either South Africa has a much more serious drug problem than previously thought, or a far less severe problem with drunk driving, both unlikely. Equally unlikely is that police have an easier time identifying and arresting people carrying banned drugs than conducting a simple roadblock and administering breathalyser tests.
The most probable interpretation is that enforcement of existing rules about driving under the influence is severely broken.
The current legal blood alcohol limit for drivers is 0.05g of alcohol per 100ml of blood, which according to the Automobile Association is the equivalent of just under one beer or tot of whisky within an hour of getting behind the wheel.
Studies have shown that various factors can have a greater detrimental effect on driving ability than such levels of alcohol consumption, including fatigue and distractions such as cellphones.
Enforcement of basic rules has been consistently identified by road safety experts and academics as the means to reducing the road death toll in South Africa.
But, apparently unable to influence policing, the transport department has equally consistently focused on new initiatives that have invariably failed to be implemented, such as lowering the maximum speed limit on roads from 120kph to 100kph, or forcing all drivers to keep their headlights on during the day.
Despite a severe lack of forensic capability and patchy post-mortem examinations of victims, the transport department estimates that about 40% of road fatalities involved pedestrians, and that most of them had been drunk at the time. It is not clear how new alcohol limits for drivers would help in that regard.
The police releases crime data only once a year, in September, but makes an occasional exception for major operations, of which festive-season policing is one.
But those numbers largely exclude reports of crime and complaints laid, focusing instead on the number of arrests. The only detail of incidents come when those numbers are particularly low, such as bank and cash-in-transit robberies (of which there were two each), or complaints of violence from Johannesburg’s Hillbrow (none) during the 2012 season.