Decline of once-proud traffic department

2010-12-03 00:00

IT is preposterous that a capital city the size of Pietermaritzburg has an inadequately manned and inefficient traffic police department which is attracting severe criticism from ratepayers, visitors and the motoring public.

It’s clear from the current chaos within the municipality that when the expansion of the boundaries of the city was proposed and implemented, proper consideration was not given to increasing the traffic police department’s manpower and the number of vehicles or to ensuring effective training of its personnel in preparation for the large volumes of traffic and pedestrians, and the larger area to be patrolled.

The conspicuous absence of traffic officials has been remarked on in many letters to this newspaper, especially at critical times when they were needed the most.

During the eras of the late chief traffic officer Alain Portelli and Geoff Pascoe, the department efficiently controlled the city’s traffic. At that time, even with an inadequate staff complement, traffic personnel were highly visible. They were smartly uniformed and their vehicles were clean and roadworthy. The citizens of Pietermaritzburg and transient road users had a marked respect for traffic officials.

Since 1986, vehicle numbers have dramatically increased and the area of municipal jurisdiction is far larger, so one asks the reasonable question: what steps were taken to increase and improve the number of traffic officials needed for effective operations of the department?

In 1990, visitors to the city, Cyril Lawson of Pretoria and his family, were involved in a serious accident on the N3. Lawson wrote a letter of appreciation for the assistance of the local traffic officials. He said: “I travel quite regularly around South Africa … and never in my travels have I encountered such efficiency and professionalism from what many people crudely and unreasonably call ‘speed cops’. The courtesy, sympathy and service that my family and I received … can only be described as outstanding and a credit to the city of Pietermaritzburg …”

So what went wrong? Can the Msunduzi traffic police department again become a department dedicated to its main functions of providing efficient traffic control, reducing road accidents, removing road criminals from our streets and demonstrating that the officials within that department are truly serving and protecting the people? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Let’s take a peek at the history of the capital of KwaZulu-Natal and compare it with the current situation.

In the city centre were parking meters, neatly defined parking bays, loading zones and prohibited parking and stopping areas, with laws relating to these enforced by no-nonsense traffic wardens patrolling on foot throughout the central business district. Now there are none of these.

In the suburbs, the CBD and on the national road bypassing the city, one would encounter traffic pointspeople, marked traffic patrol vehicles, men and women on motorcycles, a special freeway patrol and collision squad, a tactical squad of competent personnel, dog units, and horse and motorcycle patrols in the forests and parks. There were reserve traffic wardens and traffic signallers at intersections where pupils had to cross busy roads.

Traffic cameras recorded red-traffic- light offenders and speeding motorists on routes that had high accident volumes, and two officer speed-checking teams moved all over the city on a planned programme enforcing the speed limits, particularly at places where there were indications that accidents had been caused by excessive speed.

Today traffic calming measures in the form of a proliferation of speed humps abound around the city. There is little evidence of speed-limit enforcement to regulate and control the speed of vehicles

The department had an up-to-date traffic accident bureau — one of the finest in the country — to which officials from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the South African Bureau of Standards and the National Road Safety Council regularly brought overseas officials and visitors to see. Enforcement planning emanated from this bureau and Pietermaritzburg became renowned for its successful reduction of traffic accidents through the High Accident Location Selective Enforcement Programme (Halsep) in South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The increasing road carnage around the city indicates that Halsep is no longer being applied and one wonders whether an accident bureau still exists.

The photographic section was active, taking photos of traffic offenders, road accidents and other related topics on a daily basis. These were used in traffic safety education talks on alcohol and drug abuse in the traffic environment at schools, the Royal Show, the university and colleges, and were displayed at exhibitions held at shopping centres and other public places.

Press releases on various traffic enforcement projects and road safety research appeared almost daily in newspapers and on radio and television networks, as well as full information on traffic-control measures and street closures that would be enforced at major events such as the Duzi Canoe Marathon and Comrades Marathon. Even where the security of key installations and the lives of top officials were threatened by the placement of explosives, the public were informed about what streets to avoid and which routes to use. Now we are lucky if we get any information at all.

The traffic department had a junior traffic training centre laid out with mini roads, traffic signs and a traffic light, and scooters and small bicycles were provided by sponsors so that children could be taught how to use the roads safely. The centre became a favourite place for members of the public to hire for children’s birthday parties. A walk or drive past the grounds of the junior traffic training centre adjoining traffic and security headquarters shows none of these activities and the missing mini road traffic signs confirm that road safety education is a thing of the past.

Regularly, traffic officers on horses and motorcycles could be seen in the forests and plantations surrounding the city protecting the city’s timber assets, walkers and runners from criminal attacks, removing snares and preventing crime. They were also visible in the parks, especially at Alexandra Park when Cars in the Park and Art in the Park took place, and in parks in Northdale and Mountain Rise, as well as in the cemeteries.

Traffic officials conducted traffic control on the streets and at large events in such a manner that the free flow of traffic into and out of the city was unhindered. During the morning and evening peak traffic hours there were always pointspeople present at major intersections and officers on motorcycles and in cars patrolled the routes where heavy traffic was present to assist where the traffic was obstructed and to take over where traffic signals were out.

In 1989, I presented a paper to the council informing it that no notice appeared to have been taken of the warning that the traffic police department would encounter severe difficulties in the future if certain measures were not introduced and sufficient finance budgeted for the implementation of the recommended measures.

The contents of that paper pointed out that “the growing population and increasing number of motor vehicles in … Pietermaritzburg will present an overwhelming … problem for the traffic police department in the future. The present staff establishment of traffic police officers and traffic wardens as well as the available resources will be insufficient to cope with the … developments in the city in the next decade.”

The full contents of this paper were included in the book Fifty years of traffic control and traffic policing in the city of Pietermaritzburg from 1939 to 1989, which was published by me and distributed to every councillor, local affairs committee members, council head officials, justice and police departments and news media organisations. There is therefore no excuse for the chaos that reigns on the city’s road system and the responsibility for the absence of an adequately staffed, competent traffic police department can be laid squarely at the portico of city hall.

Time will tell whether the city will regain the standards and respect of the former efficiently managed traffic police department. We hope so for everyone’s sake but many of us are not holding our breaths.

• James Mills is a former deputy traffic chief of Pietermaritzburg and deputy director (operations) of the former Durban City Police.

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