Small road safety solutions combine to make a difference

Introducing VAS systems onto South African roads could serve as a road safety remedy. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

Introducing VAS systems onto South African roads could serve as a road safety remedy. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

The cost of South Africa’s road accidents is enormous. Financially, the Road Traffic Management Corporation estimates this cost to be around R300-billion to the local economy per annum. The impact is of course not only monetary — besides removing economically active people from society, fatal accidents are also a massive blow to families.

South Africa ranks poorly in the World Health Organisation rankings of road fatalities, with 25.1 deaths per 100 000 people in its 2015 report, against an international rate of 17.4. The long and the short of it is that we’re not doing very well.

Causes of vehicle accidents are categorised by contributory factors. Firstly there is the human factor, where perhaps the driver fell asleep, was driving drunk or was speeding. The second contributory factor might be the road condition, where, for instance there was a pothole or the roadway wasn’t lit adequately. Finally, there are environmental factors — rain, for example.

Ultimately, the human factor is the biggest culprit in road accidents. Humans are at fault in the clear majority of crashes. So when we look to reduce our road fatalities, we would do well to look at cutting down on human factor causes — drunk driving, speeding and reckless driving.

Most road safety remedies are not spectacular “big fixes” that halve the fatality rate overnight. I believe road safety can best be improved with many small, practical improvements that combine to bring down our horrific death rate.

Allow me to describe one such small, practical improvement: a type of electronic road signage known as VAS or Vehicle Activated Signs.

A VAS is quite often a single-message sign. It may show a speed limit, with wording below it warning drivers to “slow down”, with some flashing lights. In South Africa, one sometimes sees these at roadworks, but in the UK these signs are used on both major and minor roads for speed management.

Speed management has a direct effect on road safety. The World Health Organisation has found that for every 1km/h decrease in average speeds, there is a 3% drop in crash risk and a 5% reduction in fatal crash risk.

I previously worked for Surrey County Council in the UK, while the council was implementing a programme of VAS installations throughout the county. Studies were conducted before and for three years after the VAS installation. The effect of the signage was significant, in terms of speed reduction, and in reducing crash figures.

Upon my return to South Africa I was sponsored by the department of transport to do a study on the feasibility of using Vehicle Activated Signs to improve road safety here.

The study, for my master’s degree in 2015, examined the potential savings — in lives and financial losses — of introducing VAS on South African roads.

In doing so, one must consider the cost-benefit ratios of implementing such a programme and factor in relative driver obedience rates, which come into play in human factor accident causes such as speeding.

I compared my UK study area, the County of Surrey, with my local study area — the similarly sized Nelson Mandela Bay Metro — and extrapolated the results to apply to South Africa’s national road traffic and accident statistics.

The cost of purchasing and installing these signs was set against the potential monetary value of preventing speeding-related accidents.

The research found that if we introduced an equivalent number of VAS signs on our national roads, fatalities would be reduced by 136 crashes per year — an overall reduction of 1.2% in fatal crashes.

Compared to a cost-benefit ratio of 1:52.5 in the UK, South Africa could expect a cost-benefit ratio of 1:10.5 for a VAS programme equivalent to what Surrey County Council implemented. This means that for every R1 we spend on this technology in a year, we would potentially save R10.50. That represents a saving of R204-million each year.

Surrey installed a total of 218 signs. If we were to introduce 218 VAS signs on South Africa’s national road network, it would cost us around R20-million. In return, we would save R204-million because of the reduction in accidents.

Unfortunately, the VAS system has yet to be implemented or even trialed by South African road authorities,  because there are numerous priorities competing with road safety for the limited budgets in our country.

I do look forward however to the day when Vehicle Activated Signs are a common sight on South African roads and they can do their bit to bring down road fatalities and make our economy more efficient, even if only incrementally.

It is this way with a lot of social improvements. If we can make several small changes, and each one has, say, a 1% impact, at the end of the day we’ll all start going in the right direction.

Charl Swanepoel is a transportation associate at GIBB, a leading black-owned, multi-disciplinary engineering consulting firm