Good roads need safety campaigns that change public’s behaviour

Today alone, an estimated 40 road users will be killed. This equates to more than 14 000 people across our country in a year. Of those killed 40% are pedestrians, most of whom cannot afford to use public transport.

In first world countries, such figures would represent a national catastrophe. Yet in South Africa, year after year, the carnage on our roads continues unabated. The quality of the country’s road system from an engineering perspective is extremely high, with a metropolitan and national road network comparable in extent and infrastructure with many developed countries that boast far better road safety statistics. 

Clearly infrastructure is not sufficient to save South Africa’s people from slaughter on the country’s roads, and only significant behavioural change among road users is needed before road deaths can decrease.

How to blend advanced engineering with effective road safety education campaigns to positively impact behavioural changes was the topic of discussion at a Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum in Cape Town this week, hosted by the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

The forum discussion panel comprised Dr Marion Sinclair, doctor of traffic engineering and road safety in Stellenbosch University’s department of civil engineering; Randall Cable, engineering manager for operations at the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral); Professor Gerda van Dijk of the School of Social and Government Studies at North-West University; and Helena Fourie, development manager at Sanral.

It cannot be argued that investment in infrastructure and advanced road engineering play a considerable role in driving safety. 

In 2011 the United Nations (UN) adopted the Safe Systems Approach to Road Safety, which shifts the mind-set around road safety from a person-at-fault perspective to the more realistic acknowledgement that people — both drivers and pedestrians — will inevitably make mistakes on the road. Therefore the road environment should be designed to be as forgiving as possible to minimise the consequences of mistakes. Cable pointed out that the condition behind this approach was that those using the road environment did so in a responsible manner, and according to specific controls and constraints. 

“Our big challenge, however, is that South African society is not always compliant with the basic rules of the road. Road authorities need to provide a road environment that influences and encourages better compliance from our road users,” he said.

The role of education in road safety cannot be underestimated. As the   agent responsible for the upkeep of South Africa’s roads, one of Sanral’s top priorities is the safety of the road user, implemented not only through engineering, but also through partnerships with education and enforcement authorities and stakeholders. 

As such, decisions on construction, maintenance, operation and management of the road network are driven by an integrated approach known as the “three Es” of road safety: engineering, education and enforcement.

“Improving pedestrian safety is one of our most urgent concerns. Throughout South Africa there is often genuine need for pedestrians to walk along or across busy roads — although dangerous and illegal, the frightening reality is that sometimes walking along a highway next to an informal settlement is safer for the person than walking through the settlement. 

“We need to ensure effective and appropriate measures to separate pedestrians and other forms of non-motorised traffic from moving vehicles,” said Fourie.

Creating awareness

To this end Sanral has taken a multi-pronged approach to educating the public, from ongoing awareness programmes in rural and urban communities, and the implementation of formal road safety education programmes for learners and educators, to the use of social networking to target current and future road users in their formative years through interaction with the ChekiCoast page on Facebook.

The greatest challenge to decreasing the number of deaths on our roads remains ignorance.

“The level of road safety awareness in South Africa is abysmal. People don’t understand the basic link between speed and crash energy, why they should use a seatbelt, the importance of child restraints, or how even a small amount of alcohol can hinder their ability to make sound judgements and process information. 

“The most alarming fact is the level of ignorance about this ignorance. It’s across all population groups, irrespective of economic level or education,” said Sinclair.

While irresponsible road behaviour is inexcusable in societal groups that have access to road safety awareness messages, large sectors of South Africa’s rural population are seldom exposed to the country’s busy roads and highways, so their comprehension of road safety is minimal. 

Regardless of how good the road infrastructure is, hazard perception plays the greater role in safe road use behaviour. Only when pedestrians or drivers perceive a hazard and understand the risk involved with their interaction with that hazard, will they align their behaviour with the engineering capabilities of the road, their vehicle, and that there are other users on the road.

Van Dijk explained that human action is a societal phenomenon —people’s behaviour is a product of the dynamic interplay the individual has with his or her society. For example, a traffic light is not within the terms of reference of a rural child who has never seen a traffic light, so trying to explain to that child how to use it safely will be difficult.

“Socio-economic issues also have a large impact on where in the hierarchy of needs something like road safety education fits. The concerns of economically challenged parents in the rural areas, for example, are pre-determined by their socio-economic situation — they are unlikely to prioritise the need to ensure their child gets to school safely, over the need for basic fundamentals like food and housing,” said Van Dijk.

Taking responsibility

Hector Elliot, chief director for road safety co-ordination in the Western Cape government’s the department of transport and public works, demonstrated that the real problem of ignorance is present at even the highest level: national government.

“The rand value of transport-related injuries and mortalities on South Africa’s roads is estimated by the department of transport to be around R306-billion so far. And yet the attention national government gives this problem is seriously lacking. 

“The National Development Plan, designed to provide a comprehensive blueprint for the development of South Africa leading up to 2030, has no mention whatsoever of the importance of road safety. Similarly, the president’s State of the Nation address has, over the past several years, made no mention of the high number of fatalities on our roads nor the dire need for improved road safety,” said Elliot.

The discussion concluded with the panel agreeing that the seriousness of the road safety message is critical and needed to be conveyed appropriately to all society. 

Engineering alone cannot fight the battle for road safety. Rather, it is the responsibility of all parties involved — citizens, engineers, educators and government — to play a part in creating safer communities by educating on the consequences of irresponsible or careless road behaviour. Changing behaviour within a society requires a holistic approach across all stakeholders, who need to understand the responsibility they have towards creating a safe community for their children, and safer roads for all users.

This article has been paid for by,  and its contents and photographs provided and signed off by Sanral.

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