When it comes to legislation to prevent road deaths, South Africa checks all the right boxes. But as with many things in the country, it all falls down when it comes to implementation.
The preliminary road death toll for the holiday season is expected to be released on Thursday but so far over 1 200 people have already been confirmed dead.
When the World Health Organisation profiled the country’s road safety status, it found that South Africa had legislation in place for everything from speed limits and blood alcohol limits to seatbelt and helmet laws. But on a scale of zero to 10, it scored an average of three for enforcement in all categories.
The 2009 Global Status Report on Road Safety showed that South Africa has 33 reported road deaths per 100 000 people. In comparison, Brazil had 18 reported deaths per 100 000, China had seven, and India nine. Even accounting for poor reporting, South Africa was among the worst offenders in the world for road deaths.
“We have a much bigger problem than anybody is making out,” said Howard Dembovsky, national chairperson of Justice Project South Africa.
“This is a systemic thing that happens in every single month of the year, it's just highlighted over the festive season.”
Single-minded focus on speed
Dembovsky said that close to 100% of traffic enforcement in Johannesburg is done through camera enforcement.
“To put that in perspective, you may overtake on a solid line, on a blind rise, on a blind corner, fail to stop at stop streets or traffic lights. So long as you do so under the speed limit, you can drive as you please," he said.
“We need a complete review of the way in which traffic policing is performed in this country. It needs to become proactive, visible and effective. Right now that’s not the case.”
Dembovsky questioned the sense of focusing so greatly on traffic blocks to achieve traffic law enforcement.
“The vast majority of fatal crashes don’t happen on freeways. So once again you need to ask this question, you’re blocking off freeways with roadblocks; fatal crashes are happening on your other routes. What are you doing?” he asked.
He argued that it would be more effective to deploy those officers over a wider area in order to deter bad driving.
'About 14 000 people die annually on SA roads'
Gary Ronald, a spokesperson for the Automobile Association of South Africa (AA), said about 14 000 people die on South African roads each year.
“We know road user behaviour needs a serious adjustment in attitude. We also realise law enforcement as it stands at the moment is certainly not helping reduce the number of fatalities and crashes,” he said.
“We need more than just enforcement,” said Ronald. “For those who do break the law, the fact that there is no consequence is a problem.”
Ronald said one of the reasons why our road safety strategy may be so focused on roadblocks and speeding fines is because it is easy to manage and to measure.
“It’s easy to say: ‘We stopped a million vehicles, we spoke to so many people and fined so many people',” he said.
But Ronald said a roadblock is the worst place to catch people who are breaking traffic laws. “They’re already alerted well in advance because there’s drama up ahead. They’ll put on their seatbelts or potentially swop drivers if one has been drinking,” he said.
“It’s the officer on the road who’s patrolling, looking out for suspicious or aberrant behaviour [that prevents infringements]. Just being there creates a halo effect where people behave themselves.”
Overreaching road safety plan
Ronald said one of the problems in tackling the road death crisis is that there is no overreaching road safety policy.
Over 1 000 people die on South African roads every month. This is despite South Africa’s commitment to the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety, the National Road Safety Strategy and Action Plan, the National Rolling Enforcement Plan and a 10-year road crime crash combating strategy for the Make Roads Safe campaign.
Officers have been stopping and checking a million cars and drivers a month since late 2010. Last year, the Road Accident Fund finalised about 149 467 claims and paid out over R12-billion to claimants.
“We have a strategy and a couple of plans. Neither has ever been implemented in full. It’s been a fragmented approach to traffic safety,” he said.
In order to make the strategies work regardless of which province or municipality is running enforcement efforts, a policy framework was needed, he added.
“We need to move away from just looking at speed prosecution. Having guys on the road patrolling, visible, with their lights on in traffic, stopping people doing stupid things, educating people and having a one on one conversation on the roadside, without asking for lunch money or a coke,” said Ronald.
The cost of accidents
According to the AA, between March 2010 to April 2011 the cost of all crashes was R157.7-billion. This includes fatalities, injuries, damage to the economy, emergency services, insurance claims and payments from the Road Accident Fund for medical claims and future loss of earnings
But Ashref Ismail, spokesperson for the Road Traffic Management Corporation, defended the use of roadblocks and speeding cameras to enforce traffic violations like drunk driving and speeding.
He said that because cameras can snap pictures of speeding cars automatically, 24 hours a day, the figures comparing fines issued by officers as versus cameras would always be skewed.
Road blocks are also just one of a bouquet of interventions that can be implemented in traffic law enforcement, and they work well to prevent crime and drunk driving and to assess the roadworthiness of vehicles.
Ismail said it’s unfortunate that the media only focuses on road safety during the festive season and Easter.
“Road safety is not sexy or glamorous but during Easter and the festive season where nothing happens, it helps to fill spaces [in newspapers] and it gives us much needed exposure and space to spread the message,” he said.
Challenges to enforcing traffic
He admitted that there were serious challenges to enforcing traffic.
“We have 17 000 officers trying to police a road network of over 750 000km around the country. Almost 8 000 of them are metro police, and they also have to … split their attention between bylaw enforcement, crime prevention and traffic,” he said.
Ismail maintained that the political will to tackle the problem is there, saying all politicians had rallied to the cause.
“The political will is there but to make those things work you need funding. You need treasury. You’re not just going to get 5 000 additional officers. Road safety is competing with a number of other social causes as well – crime, HIV/Aids, social injustices of the past that are to be rectified,” he said.
According to Ismail, the three key contributors to South Africa’s high number of road deaths include driving at speeds that are too high for circumstances, drinking and driving as well as drinking and walking, and dangerous overtaking – such as overtaking on barrier lines or overtaking in the face of oncoming vehicles.
The state's strategies
Transport department spokesperson Tiyani Rikhotso also defended the state’s strategies for improving road safety.
“Our plans are well on par with those being implemented by other countries. We however seem to be faced with unique challenges here,” he said, adding that people need to begin taking responsibility beyond the programmes government has in place.
“People have not appreciated the danger associated with dangerous and reckless behaviour on the roads or the consequences that come thereafter. We’ve grown accustomed to counting dead bodies.”
“We’re looking at a holistic approach beyond enforcement but we want the nation to get involved … I don’t think people fully recognise that the violation of a traffic law is a crime."