Where’d the traffic guy go?

2013-09-28 00:00

HE has been on air for the last 29 years and the nickname “the traffic guy” has become synonymous with his cheerful voice and up-to-date information about the traffic situation in KwaZulu-Natal.

His never-ending good cheer in the face of bad driving and traffic accidents sometimes appears to make everything seem better.

“A truck broken down on Town Hill”, sometimes accompanied by a “ping”, makes motorists feel relieved that they are not the only ones annoyed by this common occurrence.

But JVB — Johann von Bargen — stared death in the face this year and his sudden “off air” absence was due to a serious illness that nearly had him beaten. The ex-traffic cop and advanced driving instructor was laid low for nearly three months after contracting the Guillain–Barré syndrome.

A nasty cold mutated into this rare disorder, which claims the lives of 10% of all patients.

“I woke up and told my wife Barbara that I had a weird numb feeling under my feet, and then within a few hours that feeling had spread up my leg and I found it difficult to walk.”

Within 24 hours he had been sent to a doctor, specialist and straight to ICU. For Von Bargen, usually a healthy guy, this was a shock. He runs his own business teaching anti-hijacking seminars and advanced driving techniques and has a very busy schedule.

Down-time in hospital was definitely not part of his plan, but he found himself almost completely paralysed and as helpless as a baby. His wife Barbara had to bathe him and he even had trouble holding a spoon and eating. To avoid a barrage of visitors, the hospital kept JVB registered under a false name.

When he was released, doctors warned him that it could be months or even years before he would fully recover. With his trademark good humour, Von Bargen described his physiotherapist as “Satan’s sister”. The gruelling exercises were to ensure his muscles retained their memory and even his wife Barbara made him continue the exercises.

In the last six weeks he has started to feel fully recovered and on Tuesday attended the Msunduzi Hospice Car fair to give one of his trademark anti-hijacking talks on Heritage Day.

Curious visitors came up to see the man behind the voice, “Say something”, they would prompt. “Oh yes that’s him”, they would say, satisfied he was not a fake.

Von Bargen has a few pet hates when it comes to the state of the roads — trucks and taxis — and he puts it down to poor law enforcement. “Traffic officers are not doing their jobs properly — if they were, then half those trucks and taxis would not be roadworthy.”

He also relies on a huge network of helpful road users who alert him to problem situations on the roads. While he contacts the traffic departments for updates, it is the road users who phone from the scene that are the best informants.

Von Bargen says he is very grateful for their information.

“They are helping other people on the road who can avoid that area and are also making it easier for the emergency vehicles to get to the scene.”

He says he began offering his anti-hijacking courses when he realised that basic information could save lives.

“People think that you have to be a hero but actually it is all about being aware of your surroundings. Hijackers are, like most criminals, opportunists and they look for easy targets.”

Unlocked doors, windows down and a driver who is staring ahead and thinking of their grocery list — this is the driver who will be an ideal hijacking candidate. “The first thing they will say is … the guy came out of nowhere …”

Teaching advanced driving to a range of drivers from delivery drivers to housewives, Von Bargen says that everyone can benefit from the course. “No one wants to be in an accident — yet they happen often. Clearly a lot of mistakes are being made. Everyone can improve their skills.”

If you want to touch a nerve, mention the issue of traffic bribes to him. “I will never pay a bribe in my life. It is the rot in the traffic police. I have heard of some traffic officers making up to R80 000 a month on bribes. It is shameful.”

This self-effacing joker admitted that he once broke the law … he got a parking fine when he went to get his wedding suit on the day before he got married. “… but I paid it!” he said smiling.

What is Guillain–Barré syndrome?

GUILLAIN–BARRÉ syndrome is a rare disorder that causes your immune system to attack your peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS nerves connect your brain and spinal cord with the rest of your body. Damage to these nerves makes it hard for them to transmit signals. As a result, your muscles have trouble responding to your brain. The syndrome is often triggered by a cold or infection. It is diagnosed by nerve tests and a spinal tap.

Johann Von Bargen was a natural

VON Bargen left the Durban Traffic police nearly 20 years ago to start his own advanced driving business after teaching advanced driver training.

While he was working at the Traffic Department his boss suggested he do the morning traffic reports for the radio — which was then Radio Port Natal. He nervously agreed and was even more nervous when his boss added — “Remember 250 000 people will be listening to you”.

But it turns out he was a natural and 29 years later he has become a legend on the airwaves.

Known as JVB or “the traffic guy”, he is considered a voice of authority when it comes to the roads.

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