Problem with potholes

2008-06-02 00:00

In the general scheme of things potholes seem pretty insignificant. Every driver has encountered potholes and a good few have suffered, usually minor, damage to their cars because of them.

Last week, though, we were alerted to the fact that, small though they may be in themselves, potholes can be of great consequence to road users and, directly and indirectly, to the government and the public at large. This was emphasised by Thursday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) that Pietermaritzburg advocate Alistair McIntosh is entitled to claim damages from the province for serious injuries sustained in a cycling accident when he swerved to avoid a huge pothole in the P164 Rosetta-Kamberg Road. The pothole had been in existence for about a year prior to the accident and, for no discernible reason, had not been repaired, while no warning signs had been erected. Because of this the judges ruled that officials whose job it is to inspect and repair potholes on that road were negligent. Allegations that KwaZulu-Natal’s road network is in an unacceptable condition are the subject of at least two other current court cases being heard in the Pietermaritzburg High Court. One relates to a 2005 accident on the Sani Pass road that left Australian Murray Eastman a paraplegic. In the other, the owners of a Drakensberg hotel, located in a world heritage site, are attempting to force the KZN transport authorities to repair access roads.

One can only guess at the cost to the province of these legal actions, including the costs of retaining counsel and of any damages awarded. What an appalling waste, especially for a transport department that is, we’re told, always short of funds. Why not, instead, have spent that money on road maintenance and on the proper supervision of those supposed to inspect and see to the repair of damaged surfaces?

The answer seems to be that the department has no idea of its purpose and responsibilities — and indeed, seems to believe, rather quaintly, that roads are immutable and indestructible, and need no upkeep. It has to learn that, like all government departments, its job is to serve, not lord it over or ignore, the public. In this case the service consists in striving to maintain all roads in its jurisdiction in a condition that is safe for all road users. Apart from the fact that this is what we, as taxpayers, pay for and have a right to expect, the department should be constantly aware that our economy runs on our roads. Safe roads, in the best possible condition, constantly monitored, constantly maintained and/or upgraded, are absolutely indispensable. Perhaps the current court cases, which make the transport department look very bad indeed, may awaken its conscience and jolt it into action.

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