It is well-known that South Africa has one of the highest road accident death rates in the world. Although up-to-date and reliable statistics are hard to come by, it is widely appreciated that in excess of 11 000 people die annually on South Africa’s roads. In fact some sources indicate that annually road accident deaths in South Africa exceed 17 000, with more than 10 000 fatal accidents a year. The cost of this is enormous – the Department of Transport estimates that the economic cost of road accidents is up to 10% of the GDP, while the Automobile Association’s estimate is approximately half of this, but at R157.7 billion for the 2010/11 financial year even this estimate still equates to a staggering amount of money. From data given in Wikipedia, with an annual road accident death rate of 31.9 per 100 000 inhabitants, South Africa has the world’s 8th highest road accident death rate. However, given that the countries occupying the top four positions all have significantly smaller populations than South Africa, South Africa’s position on the list can be elevated to 4th, a very dubious distinction indeed.
Driver Error and Attitudes
It is interesting and unsettling to note that the murder rate in South Africa is very similar to the road accident fatality rate, given the demographics of murder in South Africa versus those of road accident deaths, middle class people living in urban, non-township areas have something like a 100 times higher chance of dying as a result of a road accident compared with being murdered. While the murder rate in South Africa is inexcusably high and approximately 5 times that of the world average, it evokes a disproportionate amount of anger and emotion while publicly there is little or no emotion evoked by our road accident rate. This is despite the fact that every single road user in South Africa can play a part in reducing the road accident rate. Perhaps this is because it is easier to point fingers and apportion blame rather than to accept responsibility.
From a summary of the contributory factors to road accidents given on the Arrive Alive website, 70 to 80% of accidents are caused by human factors such as violation of traffic rules and inconsiderate driving behaviour. 10 to 15% of accidents are a result of vehicle non-roadworthiness including factors such as smooth tyres, poor brakes and defective lighting and 5 to 10% are due to environmental factors including poor road conditions, poor visibility and stray animals. In fact more than 95% of accidents are a result of a direct traffic offence, with most accidents resulting from a combination of 2 or more offences. In excess of 30% of accidents involve pedestrians or bicycles and between 35 and 40% of fatalities are pedestrians.
In terms of accidents caused by human error, the vast majority of these boil down to one simple common root cause – selfishness. Whether through non-adherence to, or blatant disregard for the rules of the road, unsafe overtaking, drunk driving, failure to stop or yield correctly, speeding, maintaining of unsafe following distances or sheer recklessness and aggressiveness, these behaviours indicate that a person has no respect for, or consideration of other road users. Simply being considerate towards other road users and thereby not displaying such behaviour would have the single biggest impact on reducing accidents and fatalities on South African roads.
The Role of Government
Government obviously have a big responsibility to play, but I disagree with commentators such as Wayne Duvenage (although I have the utmost respect for his work as the head of OUTA) in placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of government. Nonetheless, by ensuring more visible policing and changing the attitudes of traffic police authorities in this regard will have a significant impact. There needs to be a cohesive effort between local authorities and the South African Police Service, without detracting from the primary responsibility of the SAPS in fighting crime. Traffic police officials need to be visible instead of hiding in ditches or behind bushes trying to generate revenues for local authorities (and perhaps Christmas bonuses) and individual officers and licensing authorities need to be incorruptible. There also needs to be a continuous, concerted effort in monitoring of vehicle roadworthiness and licensing of drivers to ensure that dangerous vehicles and drivers are removed from South African roads. The effort of traffic police officials also needs to be carried through to the criminal justice system and offenders must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I am unaware of any case where a driver has received a non-suspended prison sentence for excessive speeding and moreover drunken-driving.
Instead of proposing laws such as zero alcohol limits and reducing speed limits, proper enforcement of existing legislation is necessary. Drivers who have a drink or two with friends or over a meal at a restaurant do not contribute to South Africa’s high road accident rate. It is those drivers who are intoxicated and who pay no heed to the law that are the problem. In fact of the pedestrians killed in road accidents, it has been estimated that up to 50% of these are intoxicated, a far higher contributor to the carnage than even completely intoxicated drivers. Reducing speed limits on national roads and freeways will also not solve any problems. On well-designed roads that are in good condition, 120 km/hour is not an excessive speed – instead the vehicles driving well in excess of this and displaying other inconsiderate and dangerous behaviours are the problem. There are of course numerous roads where the speed limit has possibly been set too high because of the road design, condition or the nature of the surroundings, but lowering overall speed limits is not the solution – rather address the problem roads and areas. Reducing speed limits in urban areas is potentially beneficial, but good, considerate drivers will reduce their speed automatically in conditions where there is a higher risk, and unless enforced, a speed limit reduction from 60 km/hour will have no benefit.
Although it will not have a direct influence on the road accident rate, mandatory third-party liability insurance is something that government need to give strong consideration to – it protects other people and their property from at-fault drivers who are not insured and who cannot afford to compensate others in the event of an accident that they have caused. Such insurance will also remove the requirement for litigation in order to try to recover such costs in instances where they have been incurred. With only approximately 35% of vehicles on South Africa’s roads being properly insured, mandatory third-party insurance will help protect non-reckless drivers and contribute towards reducing the insurance premiums of those who are fully insured.
What More Can You Do
Unfortunately, until all or at least most South African road users reach the level of maturity that being in control of a dangerous and potentially lethal device should demand, sensible road users need to protect themselves. By going beyond adherence to the rules of the road and the basic mechanics of driving, adopting defensive driving techniques enormously increases your personal safety on the road. An important technique is to pay more attention to the behaviour of other drivers and scanning the road ahead, side roads and junctions in order to recognise the mistakes of others and potential road hazards or dangerous situations. Furthermore drivers need to adjust their speed and following distance to suit the road and weather conditions, traffic volume, visibility and nature of the environment through which they are driving. Finally drivers must ensure that their vehicles are properly maintained and roadworthy at all times.
Very few people drive about aimlessly, we all have a destination in mind and a time by which we have to be there – being in a rush is not an excuse, nor is being under undue stress – this is again a burden we all have to bear, and yet claiming your rush or state of stress is more important than another’s indicates selfishness in the extreme. Simple planning, allowing more time to get to one’s destination will remove the rush factor and immediately lower a person’s stress levels and by easing off the accelerator and slowing down, increasing your following distance and not overtaking unless it is safe to do so will go a whole lot further.
This article is written by my husband Clifford.