The road to safety is paved with good intentions but poor execution
03 January 2019| 26 Rabi ul Aakhir 1440
The Sunday Times headline: “Bold Move to take death off SA roads (23 December 2018) refers.
Year after year we keep getting told about the drastic action that will be taken by the authorities to address the carnage on our roads. These empty promises amount to nothing more than advertising a product that’s not on the shelves.
As we speak, already road crashes have neared the 800-mark and the half-way mark of the holidays have not even been reached yet. Sadly, again, close to 1600 people would have lost their lives needlessly and senselessly during this, not-so-festive season.
This should not surprise us when the average number of people being killed daily on our roads is between 45 and 48. A shocking 40% of these figures comprise of pedestrians. The cost of crashes to the South African economy, according the World Health Organization who use a complicated formula is in the region of R 305 billion per annum.
This makes the mismanagement and corruption at other state-owned entities such as Eskom, SABC and SAA pale into comparison. Can you imagine what the country could do if this money was meaningfully utilized in uplifting the poor.
What about the human costs of losing loved ones, especially bread winners from poor homes. Inevitably, it is again, the poorest of the poor who bear the brunt of government’s lethargy and inactivity.
Granted, road safety in South Africa, given its nine provinces, eleven official languages, multi-cultural society with different classes, high levels of illiteracy, poverty and apartheid spacial legacies will be complex, but it is hardly complicated.
What makes it unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome is the lack of political will to deal decisively with the challenges of road safety. It boggles the mind that our neighbouring states have a higher compliance rate and subsequently, far lower per 100 000 population fatality rates than us, who have a more advanced infrastructure network and better roadworthy vehicles.
Road safety is a science and has to be addressed using a multi-pronged approached involving the “Four E’s”: engineering, education, enforcement and evaluation.
At the turn of the decade, South Africa was one of few countries on the continent to be a signatory to the United Nations Decade of Action campaign which set an ambitious target of reducing the death toll by 50% by 2020. All indications are that we have actually surpassed, rather than reduced our casualty rates.
If we are serious about road safety than it is time people, politicians especially, stop playing lip service to what is a pandemic given that in excess of 18 000 people per annum lose their lives on our roads. Many of these are young and vulnerable passengers and pedestrians who have limited choices.
Einstein’s words never fail to remind us that it is the height of insanity when you expect a different result if you keep doing the same thing year after year. And clearly what the authorities are doing is inadequate, insignificant and lacks any meaningful impact.
We are a society that is largely reckless and irresponsible hiding behind our Bill of Rights as enshrined by the constitution. But with freedom and rights come responsibility. We lack voluntary law compliance and we need to be policed because we have a high propensity for risk-taking behaviour because of the skewed perception of the risk benefit ratio. Which explains why we have such a high rate of head-on collisions and crashes at intersections. Our drivers lack the mental maturity to understand that the benefit of arriving a few minutes earlier is hardly worth the risk involved.
Furthermore, in an environment where we want to take short cuts in everything, we invariably buy our licenses, offer a bribe and make cases disappear. Eventually it all comes back to haunt each and everyone one of us in one way or the other. Hands up those of you who know of any friend, colleague or loved one who has been affected by a road crash.
So, what are the low hanging fruits that can give us maximum impact with minimum resources?
In the ideal world, the loss of so many lives to what is really a behavioural problem would result in the declaration of a national emergency. Given the many socio-economic causes that have to be addressed concurrently, government has neither the will or the capacity to deal decisively with road crashes.
The institutions are there, but the Road Traffic Management Corporation, the “Lead Agency” of the Department of Transport, charged with the responsibility of traffic co-ordination is largely invisible in carrying out its mandate. To such an extent that all its roads sister agencies play in the vacuum created by the RTMC.
The first step in addressing the carnage is to establish an inter-ministerial cluster comprising of the various arms of the criminal justice chain, headed by senior personnel who report directly to their political principals. This task team should include members of the departments of transport, justice, correctional service, the SAPS, defense force, the SIU, the NPA, Asset Forfeiture Unit and also the Public Protector.
The current shareholders’ committee (comprising of the nine MEC’s, headed by the national minister) should be dissolved or reduced to a ceremonial role since they barely meet and when they do, battle to quorate, with road safety issues enjoying the least attention.
Next, the road safety strategy should be a simple, no more than five-page, going back-to-basics- that-worked, stand-alone strategy crafted in consultation with research and academic institutions and should reside within the RTMC’s broader strategy dealing specifically with REDUCING THE ROAD TRAFFIC CRASH RATE. And a target needs to be set whereupon performance will be measured and people held accountable.
To give weight to this smart approach, requires the identification of critical indices, when, where, why and how are fatal crashes taking place and apply the necessary resources accordingly. Objectives need to be clear, codes of conduct must be in place and best practices in line with legislation need to be harmonized so that the one national traffic police, seven metropolitan police departments, the more than 250 odd local traffic enforcement authorities including the SAPS and other entities such as Cross Border Road Transport Authority and SANPARKS all sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to road traffic law enforcement.
And there is no need to re-invent the wheel. That manual, comprising of more than 36 chapters, known as the National Traffic Law Enforcement Code (NRTLEC) was a thoroughly researched document that took more than four years of consultation at a cost of almost R10 million rand. Remarkably, it even eventually won the approval of the four main labour unions and was one signature short of final implementation in 2013, when it was shelved after the advent of the new administration.
Not surprising because here was a guiding handbook that would have amongst others, dealt with strategic planning, goal setting and performance management, something many officials were totally dead against. It remains one of the RTMC’s key mandates as per the RTMC Act. What a shame because much of the corruption, incompetence and ineptitude would have been addressed comprehensively and decisively by a uniform best-practice policy.
The quickest way to a BCM (bad career move) is to inform an incumbent administration what worked well in the past. Ego and vanity projects take pride of place and no amount of convincing will make the top echelons accept the successes of the past.
It must, however, be said that the most successful road safety campaign post 1994 was the Arrive Alive programme. What made it so successful? It’s simplicity: Identify the lethal offences, the hazardous routes and times where fatal crashes were occurring, then conduct visible, vigorous and decisive, joint enforcement operations backed up by a high impact communication campaigns that educated, warned and informed errant road users.
Year on year saw a small but significant reduction in road deaths, as the campaign captured the imagination of the media and the road users as well as sponsors who rallied behind the minister’s call for sponsorships, until it was canned.
The Medical Research University affiliated to the University of South Africa has often presented to the authorities the undeniable fact that more than 62% of all weekend road crash fatalities can be attributed to the use of alcohol either by a driver or a pedestrian.
How many of the 280-odd traffic authorities conduct random breath testing operations. How many arrests have been conducted for reckless and negligent drivers who overtake on a barrier line or jump red lights? How many of those arrested led to convictions? These are the questions that a pro-active media needs to ask.
Denying bail for a period of seven days to a drunken suspect is constitutionally flawed and the idea of re-testing drivers every five years, while laudable, is embarrassingly impractical and sounds desperate and clueless. It makes for good sound-bites but deflects from the authority’s weaknesses by directing anger to a plan that is patently flawed, and in the process, erodes public support and does untold harm to the legitimacy of road safety.
There is just no capacity at testing stations to test all drivers every five years! Besides, people involved in a crash are not people who DON’T know how to drive. Fatal crashes are caused by motorists who KNOW how to drive, but choose to drive recklessly and negligently. How then will they be “exposed” when tested every five years?! What about the inherent corruption, again?!
It is wise to remember that in the 80-20 Principle, 20% of road users will give you 80% of the headaches. Demonstrate zero tolerance towards that 20% group and simultaneously ensure that that the 80% law abiding road users do not start slipping as they witness the inactivity and corruption taking place around them.
The University of Stellenbosch, at one of numerous conferences and talk shops, mentioned that a concerted effort needs to be placed on addressing the issue of not buckling up. According to offence surveys up to 65% people of occupants do not buckle in the front seats and less than four per cent in the rear. Witness what happens to crash test dummies not strapped in at the rear when involved in any crash above 60km/h.
Whilst buckling up might not prevent a crash, it certainly reduces the chances of injury or fatality by more than 60%. According to the university if we can get the seatbelt wearing rate up to an average of 80% at all times, front and rear, there is an automatic 50% reduction in casualties. It’s a no brainer, really. (We could actually be achieving our global target on dealing effectively on this offence alone!)
Note how many police officers drive around without being buckled up? What’s that about leading by example?
The much-vaunted penalty demerits system, the Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences, otherwise known as AARTO, for much of its good intentions is not a panacea that it is thought to be. It will only work, again, if corruption is brought down to an “acceptable” level.
Besides, it has been the longest running pilot programme in the history of pilot programmes – more than ten years! What’s the delay? If it’s not going to work, can it, if ever there’s a road safety initiative to be canned.
We visited numerous countries that boasted effective and efficient penalty demerit systems – but, where corruption levels were negligible – and came back with the most complicated system that is just taking forever to implement. And to think there is a dedicated agency, the Road Traffic Infringement Agency (RTIA) tasked with responsibility of ensuring its roll out, which if it goes according to plan could make a huge impact on road traffic behaviour.
Other bold, innovative and quick-fix solutions could include the following (most do not even need legislative amendments):
1. Deployment of the National Traffic Police as a highly trained, special task force in teams of ten officers to augment local traffic authorities dealing with specific lethal offences along hazardous locations, stabilize the situation and move to the next trouble spot;
2. Re-testing of any public transport passenger driver who was involved in a crash that led to fatalities (at fault, or no fault);
3. A year-round 24/7 rolling enforcement plan that prioritizes the most hazardous offences in a thematic approach at roadside check-points;
4. Smart policing tactics using unmarked vehicles, aerial surveillance (drones or aircraft) to deal with moving violations such as reckless overtaking;
5. Random breath testing: anyplace, anywhere and anytime, especially weekends;
6. A name and shame campaign where drivers convicted in a court of law are exposed on social media and use social media much more actively, professionally and efficiently;
7. The establishment and attendance of a compulsory driver education school for convicted drivers;
8. The establishment of an advisory committee of road safety specialists from various industries and institutes to act as a sounding board for road safety initiatives and
9. Finally, ensuring that the RTMC Board, the Parliamentary Oversight Committees, civil society and the media play a meaningful role in interrogating outputs and outcomes that are DIRECTLY related to the reduction in offences and casualties, and not be bamboozled, fascinated and side-tracked by smooth-talking presenters on systems and procedures.
Road safety is everyone’s responsibility. In a law-abiding society, this assertion will hold water. In our country, people break the law continuously because they know can get away with it.
Even if they’re caught, they can buy their way out of it. Which is why we need a professional, proactive and productive traffic police service that together with other disciplines in education, communication and engineering will bring about safer roads.
It is time that politicians and officials are called out if they lack commitment to an objective that results in death, serious injury and huge related costs, not to mention the cost of losing loved ones that remain incalculable. Road safety is a behavioural problem and it can be cured with strong enforcement as a starting point. Ask the Aussies who were exactly where we were 40 year ago. A zero-tolerance approach to road safety have made them amongst the best road safety countries in the world.
Ashref Ismail is a passionate veteran road safety practitioner who spent 25 years working in communities, provincial and national government transport departments and in various law enforcement and road safety divisions. He was a founder member of the Road Traffic Management Corporation and winner of the SA Guild of Motoring Journalists “Lifetime Achievement Award in Road Safety”. He currently owns a fleet risk management and transport training consultancy where he boasts an average 38% annual reduction in fleet-related crashes.