Easy riders

As few as 2,5% of road accident deaths in South Africa result in culpable homicide prosecutions, a senior state official has indicated. This suggests that no more than half a dozen motorists will face the music in connection with 173 road deaths over the Easter weekend.

The acting CEO of the Road Transport Management Corporation (RTMC), Thabo Tsholetsane, said he was not certain what percentage of road fatalities resulted in culpable homicide cases, but he believed it could be as low as 2,5%.
The RTMC is a semi-independent department, falling under the Department of Transport, tasked with improving safety on South Africa’s roads.

Tsholetsane said there was a considerable variation in prosecution success across South Africa and singled out the efforts that magistrates and law enforcement officers were making in parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

The Automobile Association spokesperson Gary Ronald said his best estimate of successful prose-cutions for criminal negligence on the roads was no higher than 4%. “There seems to be a disinclination on the part of the Department of Justice to prosecute traffic offences,” said Ronald.

Advocate Jacques Joubert, who has experience as a prosecutor and a magistrate, highlighted the difficulties in bringing dangerous drivers to court. To prove negligence beyond a reasonable doubt is difficult for the state, and South Africa’s courts tend to impose light sentences for traffic offences. “Traffic offences simply collapse to the bottom of the food chain. It can take a year or more simply to prepare a docket. Sometimes it can take up to four years,” said Joubert.

“Then the police have to present their docket to a prosecutor who may decline to prosecute if the docket has not been properly prepared, or if there is insufficient evidence to justify a trial. And even if there is enough evidence, witnesses may no longer be available to give evidence.

“There may be delays in getting a court date. And, finally, when the case is brought to court, the defendant is likely to have hired a good advocate who may run rings around inexperienced prosecutors and magistrates, who often simply don’t understand the expert evidence or the argument presented. We should, perhaps, not be too surprised by the high incidence of traffic offences in South Africa.”

The burden of changing motorists’ behaviour falls heavily on educational and promotional programmes, largely implemented by the Arrive Alive section of the Department of Transport. Arrive Alive works with an annual budget of R50million and focuses on, among other issues, alcohol and road safety.

But Charles Parry, a director of the Medical Research Council, said there was little international evidence that alcohol-related behaviour was influenced by education and publicity campaigns when unaccompanied by interventions and enforcement.

Road safety experts questioned other conventional wisdoms guiding the government approach. Road transport consultant and special prosecutor Alta Swanepoel said the emphasis on road safety over Easter and Christmas was misplaced. “Measured against the greatly increased volumes of traffic on the roads during these periods, Easter and Christmas are probably the safest times to be on the road,” said Swanepoel.

One senior lawyer said the evidence of the relationship between alcohol abuse and driver misconduct was often too diffuse to allow for scientific findings.

Yet, there seems to be little doubt about the role of drunkenness among pedestrians. According to a Medical Research Council researcher, 55% of those killed on Cape Town’s roads between 1994 and 2003 were pedestrians, most of whom had alcohol in their blood.

And, paradoxically, road deaths may rise as economic conditions in the country improve. Police superintendent Rob Askew, who is in Sweden on a course in national road safety strategy, said: “We have been shown convincing statistical proof that an increase in road accidents and fatalities invariably accompanies economic growth. Our course leaders have told us this is what to expect in South Africa. This is our challenge.”

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