Jean Barker

Why America's roads are safer than SA's

2012-08-03 09:45

Jean Barker

I quickly ruled out a few reasons for our high road-death rate.

Firstly, no, it's not “the state of our roads” that push SA's death stats up. Although South Africans whine about potholes, potholes exist all over America. California's roads are full of bumps, dongas, and bad design – and compare unfavourably to those I've driven in SA. And the traffic is insane!

It's not the skill levels of drivers that causes the deaths in SA – Californian legal drivers aren't nearly as skilled as the average South African taxi driver, or the average working woman who has to negotiate school car pools while applying makeup, shouting at kids, listening to the radio, and talking on her cell phone. In any case, driving is too easy to be a “skill”. It's like walking. You learn how. Then you avoid bumping into stuff.

It's also not the laws – South Africa's alcohol limit laws are the same, our speed limits are (roughly) the same, our road rules are comparable. In fact, US law allows a right turn on a red light (like a left turn in SA) once the driver decides it's safe – meaning the roads are even less regulated than they are in SA.

Why we kill

Firstly, South African drivers kill a lot of pedestrians, who account for over 40% of SA road deaths in South Africa. I don't want to blame the victim here, but many SA pedestrians have never driven a car, making them bad pedestrians who don't really seem to understand how deadly motorised vehicles are. The penalty for jaywalking shouldn't be death, but it frequently is.

Also SA drivers tend to enforce their right of way, at all costs, even using their front bumper. In the USA, drivers avoid driving over you, even if you're being a dumbass. For instance, if you're crossing illegally on foot in the USA, the cars will probably stop and wave you through, maybe wag a finger or two. But that's it. I know. Weird, right?

Now that's not to say that American drivers are always nicer than South Africans. Tinted windows, steel walls and new tyres make an asshole out of anybody - like the guy who half pulled out in front of me as I was driving, at the speed limit, in the correct lane... He clearly didn't realise I was South African and that therefore, although I don't want to die, if I need to in order to preserve my right of way I just might take a chance. You should have heard him brake!

South Africans, myself included, take crazy chances. And the reason is that we've grown up knowing from experience that we'll probably get away with breaking the law.

Cops

In South Africa traffic cops are like nicer, less dangerous, easy to bribe (by reputation anyhow) and not-too-well-armed versions of real cops. They drive different cars and are easily spotted.

Here in the USA, all cops have authority over drivers, and this includes special freeway cops called Staties*, who wear safari suits and drive motorbikes a lot. All kinds of cops can put you in jail. And there are lots of them. I've never been out for groceries in a US city without seeing a law enforcement vehicle en route. In many areas of SA (particularly in suburbs with the highest crime rates and the biggest populations) cops are totally invisible precisely where they're most needed. While the SA police can stop you for driving badly, we all know they are far too busy doing other stuff - mainly trying to survive themselves - to bother. 

Americans aren't as likely to down their body weight in karate-water** and drive overnight between cities, overtaking on blind rises. This is not because Americans are intrinsically better people. It's because if they dared do it in America, someone would probably call 911 with their licence plate number and Staties would arrest them and take their licence away.

South Africans kill each other on the roads because we'll get away with it. This has been the case no matter who ran the country. People die on our roads for the same reason our egalitarian laws on gay marriage don't protect gay people from corrective rape and other forms of victimisation; for the same reason  great gun control laws don't keep the murder rate down: Nobody's stopping the bad guys. Laws are meaningless without the muscle of law enforcement to back them.

*State troopers
**Brandy and coke. But you knew that...

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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