Modified taxis are death traps

2014-12-14 15:00

They split open like a tin can in a crash and might even expose their passengers to carbon monoxide poisoning.

More than 4?000 Toyota Quantum panel vans on South Africa’s roads have been illegally converted into minibus taxis – and they continue to claim lives.

Before the release of a report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela into the illegal and highly dangerous practice, City Press has spoken to those whose lives are shattered after they, or their loved ones, were involved in accidents in these vehicles.

Converted panel vans, which are not sufficiently reinforced to carry the weight of passengers, continue to be financed and resold.

They split open like a tin can in a crash and might even expose their passengers to carbon monoxide poisoning.

But thousands of Toyota Quantum panel vans that have been illegally converted into taxis are still operating on South Africa’s roads.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has conducted an investigation into illegal panel van conversions and her report is expected to be released in two weeks.

Her spokesperson, Oupa Segalwe, said their office had investigated at least 4?000 panel van conversion cases.

Three years ago, former banker Hendrick De Beer laid a complaint at the Public Protector’s office. He sent the pictures and accident reports he sourced to investigators.

Between 2009 and last year, he matched taxi insurance claims to vehicle identification numbers to determine if the vehicles had been illegally converted.

His information shows there were at least 119 accidents – many of them fatal – involving converted panel vans since 2005.

The most recent known fatal accident involving a converted van took place in October last year on a trip from Malamulele, Limpopo, to Johannesburg. Taxi owner and driver Benneth Hlungwane said a nine-month-old baby had died in the crash (see sidebar).

Another crash on the N2 near Port Elizabeth in December 2011 claimed the lives of Shimonei Max, Jenauy van Rooyen, Victoria Rossouw and Marius Williamson.

Taxi driver John Jantjies and his boss, Clynzon Fortuin, appeared in the Port Elizabeth Regional Court earlier this month on four charges of culpable homicide. But a technical investigation report compiled by the police’s accident response team showed the accident might not have been entirely Jantjies’ fault. The case was postponed to February 3.

“It is quite possible that in the N2 freeway crash, the driver may have been subjected to a continued low dose of carbon monoxide exposure,” said the report. “This could have contributed to poor concentration, drowsiness or even a non-intentional, sleep-induced state.”

The report said this could have been caused by the fact that his vehicle was a converted panel van in which the floor had been drilled and cut into many times to fit in extra seats and other parts, allowing carbon monoxide from the engine to seep inside.

The report quoted one of the surviving passengers saying that Jantjies had been unresponsive in the seconds before the accident.

Thousands of vans converted

The taxi Jantjies drove was one of 4?458 Toyota panel vans that had been converted into taxis since 2005, said De Beer.

“Most of the accidents are fatal; others have left young children paralysed. The sad part about all of this is how poor people are dying in these illegal taxis,” said De Beer.

Panel vans are designed to carry boxes of goods and do not have the reinforced flooring required to carry passengers.

They cost about R20?000 to convert and people doing the conversions could sell them for up to R100?000 more than what they paid for them, said De Beer.

Some taxi owners prefer to buy converted vehicles because they can be fitted with up to three extra seats, which can earn the taxi owner an additional R7?500 a month.

Converted taxis continue to be sold, even though they are illegal. A leading taxi insurance company has an accident-damaged converted panel van for sale on its website.

A department of transport document written in 2010 showed that conversions were performed by “some dealerships” and independent garages.

A 2005 letter to dealers from Toyota SA said the company was aware that some dealers were illegally performing conversions on Quantum vehicles.

“You could be placing passengers at risk of injury or death should critical safety points not withstand the impact in case of an accident,” it said, adding that dealers and the company could be sued.

Another letter, sent by a Toyota SA manager to an official from the transport department, said the company “condemned the practice” and “warned its dealer network” against it.

Toyota Japan said last week it had no idea its panel vans were being converted into passenger vehicles.

“This is a South African problem and you will need to get comment from them. We are not aware that this is happening. We cannot comment,” said spokesperson Seda Cacey.

Toyota SA declined to reply to a list of questions.

“Toyota South Africa has given its cooperation to the investigation conducted by the Public Protector and submitted all required information,” said spokesperson Mary Willemse.

In 2010, the department of transport began a process to legitimise converted panel vans through safety tests and a modification process.

Spokesperson Sam Monareng said the department had considered removing the vehicles from the roads.

“But because this was quite a substantial number, it would have impacted on passengers and operators.

“The decision to make them compliant was the most practical option as commuters would not be stranded without transport and the vehicles would be upgraded to safer standards. Operators would have been without income and drivers without jobs,” he said.

Financing converted vehicles

Documents show that SA Taxi Finance granted Benneth Hlungwane a loan to buy his converted Quantum last year.

He paid a deposit of R36?000 on the R306?000 vehicle, the total cost of which, with interest, amounted to R499?747.

SA Taxi Finance said it had “participated fully” with a number of inquiries into converted vehicles over the years.

“SA Taxi would like to confirm this is an old matter that has been taken up in previous years,” said spokesperson Bonisile Makubalo.

But it did not respond to questions about Hlungwane’s taxi.

Absa spokesperson Byron Kennedy said it had financed fewer than 50 converted Quantums “out of an estimated universe of 4?000”.

“We had stringent controls in place when providing finance to taxi operators, but we could not control instances in which panel vans were purchased and converted to taxis.”

Standard Bank spokesperson Ross Linstrom said its vehicle finance officials were prohibited from financing converted Quantum panel vans.

FNB vehicle financing arm WesBank said it had been concerned about taxi conversions since 2006 and had begun “implementing systems to flag applications for the financing of vehicles that might have become subject to conversion for taxi use”, said spokesperson Rudolf Mahoney. “However, I must reiterate that it is very difficult to control what a finance client does with the vehicle after delivery has taken place,” he said. – Additional reporting by Lubabalo Ngcukana

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