Crime and traffic

2008-01-14 00:00

There were several good things about the statements about holiday season traffic and crime made by KwaZulu-Natal MEC Bheki Cele last week. One is that the incidence of crime has dropped while the number of arrests has increased, which points to more effective police work in both the prevention and the detection of crime. The situation on the province’s roads is similar: fewer fatal accidents and more charges for traffic violations. Another is the promise that the licence demerit system which, if it is effectively implemented, could rid the roads of the most dangerous traffic offenders is to be introduced this year. Yet another, and in some ways perhaps the most significant, is that the figures were disclosed at all. Unlike the other authorities who have become suspiciously secretive about crime statistics, Cele displays a refreshing and encouraging transparency.

It must be noted, however, that these are only a few bright points in a generally dark picture. Also, in the continuing absence of full consolidated crime statistics, Cele’s picture is at best only partial. So, for example, if more than 400 people were arrested for murder in the period under review — some seven a day between November 14 and January 8 — the murder rate in the province remains frighteningly high. The figures for other violent crimes such as assault and rape are similarly disturbing. It is common knowledge, too, that many such crimes do not even get reported, let alone lead to successful arrests and prosecutions.

The picture for traffic offences is very similar. A figure of close on 25 000 prosecutions for traffic violations tells a story of hard work and long hours put in by the traffic police, but also of a general disregard for the rules of the road on the part of the public. The number of people who were charged for driving without licences was 2 618, 1 811 for driving unlicensed vehicles, 961 for drunken driving, another 941 for unroadworthy vehicles and vehicles of all kinds were trapped at dangerously high speeds. Small wonder that road users are being killed or maimed by the score, with the national death toll exceeding 1 000 a month.

The licence demerit system, and its earlier-than-expected introduction in the province, holds out some hope of turning things around here as it has done in Australia (which provides the model for the local version). Instead of one-off fines, drivers accumulate penalty points and once the initial allocation of 12 has been exhausted, have their licences suspended. After that, driving without a licence carries a very heavy sanction — up to 15 years in prison in the Australian model.

As with all offences, however, the effectiveness of the law depends on the effectiveness of the whole criminal justice system, and in this country the sequence through detection, arrest, prosecution, conviction and rehabilitation is notoriously inefficient. Fortunately for KwaZulu-Natal, as MEC for both Transport and Community Safety and Liaison Cele combines a realistic firmness with a willingness to engage with the public that could accelerate the encouraging trend of recent months.

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