Ofentse Mokwena | How to reach a 20% reduction in annual road traffic deaths

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Ofentse Mokwena (Supplied)
Ofentse Mokwena (Supplied)

Could greater road safety be within our reach? Ofentse Mokwena looks at how it might be possible to reduce annual road traffic deaths by 20%.


Road safety can be an objective or subjective offering, but people make choices around their appetite for risk. Police visibility, popular slogans, and other efforts create a temporary state of awareness when, “... traffic volumes are expected to peak”.

Reaching a 20% reduction requires interventions that protect the most vulnerable users and reaches the highest impact modes. But first, we need to communicate the risks and performance measures related to road safety with a focus on lasting improvements, not fleeting billboards.

Really reporting on risk

Part of reducing the appetite for risk involves reporting a complete picture for road users. Over the last few years, each month represented a loss of over 1 000 lives on roadways, and over 300 of these are pedestrians—festive season or not.

Could we move toward reporting that we had 832 431 crashes, with 13 491 fatalities, 62 520 serious injuries and 202 509 minor injuries out of a total of 1.7 million people involved in one year? This was reported in 2015, where the cost of accidents was estimated to be R142 billion, about 3.4% of our Gross Domestic Product.

Road crashes cost our economy more than agriculture, forestry, fishing, electricity, gas and water industry’s combined Gross Value Added—bigger than the construction industry even—for the same year.

In general, road deaths are more likely to be black (80%), male (76%), and 48% are between ages 20 and 34 – that is the post-school and breadwinning youth in the early stages of their careers. Children under the age of 18 usually account for less than 2%, the elderly over 65 are usually just under 10% of fatalities. How these demographics are spread across all the major and minor injuries is not reported to the public.

It is commonplace to argue that public transport carries more people and therefore one accident involving a bus or minibus taxi could injure or kill many more. However, in 2019 buses only accounted for 1% and minibus taxis 7% of fatalities, respectively—43% were private cars.

The statistics presented last week were equivalent to a pulse of fatalities on our roads. In order to reach the 20% reduction in fatalities, indicators about the broader health of our road safety environment are essential key performance indicators.

Tactical indicators that tell us the physical and objective investments and changes that are being made to contribute to a tangible reduction. We perhaps need to begin questioning the extent to which actual work is being done in the objective side of road safety to protect the most vulnerable and contain the highest impact modes.

Start with the most vulnerable

The biggest share as road user category or type of collision involves pedestrians—in 2019 they accounted for 40% of fatalities. Pedestrians are the most venerable users. Improving their environment could initiate a safer roadway domino effect. In Mexico with 16 000 fatalities in 2016, mobility and access is becoming a constitutional right:

“Every person has the right to mobility under conditions of safety, accessibility, efficiency, sustainability, quality, inclusion and equality.”

In South Africa, sidewalks and non-motorised transport infrastructure are yet to be treated as an asset class with a measurable value—reported on in the Estimates of National Expenditure, as much as we know the total number of road kilometres.

More so, the Institute for Transport Development Policy has recently developed a toolkit that focuses on putting pedestrians first. Especially because they are the slowest, youngest, and most vulnerable road users navigating the transport network exposed to the elements.

There are many standards and guidelines related to this, such as the National Non-Motorised Transport Planning Guidelines, issued by the DoT.

Investments in appropriate infrastructure to this end, could improve the manner in which towns and townships curate their landscaping, design their places and focus on developing safe and secure neighbourhoods 100m at a time.

A level of detail that could save a child crossing a local street. It could keep a young professional from being distracted on the road with traffic calming, or give her the option to cycle or walk to work if integrated changes in land-use and transport are made. Such initiatives give communities a much greater sense of place.

This is already happening in small pockets like the Bellville Youth Desk where the Saftipin App is used to empower communities to rate and engage with the safety and security of their local area—it is a global platform developed in India.

Safe spaces are made on purpose. Around the world, the 15-minute neighbourhood (city or village) is making waves of change around how to bring people and places together within 15 minute reach—anything like this will finally turn apartheid planning inside-out.

This has significant implications for integrated public transport networks—which is a fancy way of describing a connected system of routes, systems (i.e. traffic light prioritisation) and infrastructure that enables walking, cycling, buses, minibus taxis, and rail transport to almost anywhere.

Different types of interventions are possible for the high impact modes like buses and minibus taxis. They could be prioritised with temporary lanes during peak hours on multi-lane roads, and passengers may have sheltered bus and minibus taxi stops with receding bays that could provide the room for public transport to manoeuvre more safely.

Consistently taking a chance at opportunities

Road safety resides beneath this veil of integration, because unsafe roadways are caused by various factors mostly human related. Even with the new interventions, old habits will need to be worked on—be it in the K53, or by leveraging on the experience of public transport operators and helping them learn new skills in a safe environment.

Opportunities for change are there. Some of which can be better identified if the reported data also indicated whether crashes are taking place on highways, in CBDs, around the city, in neighbourhoods, or rural areas for at least each province, if not municipality.

As we enter the 2nd Decade of Action for Road Safety, the global target is to reduce fatalities by 50% by 2030. Shifting from reporting to responding to the statistics through actively financing and implementing the Road Safety Strategy would be ideal.

But to reach the 20% reduction over the next two to three years, improved data and communication needs to run parallel with targeting safer communities and roads for pedestrians: prioritising integrated public transport networks are urgent efforts.

Within the next five to seven years, driving the zoning of places toward the 15-minute neighbourhoods would be closer to practical if appropriate partnerships are crafted and community development is a priority. People should be patient with the people doing the work, but not with reaching this goal.

It’s effects, in my view, are only likely if action starts urgently and retains consistent focus regardless of election cycles between now and 2030. Imagine that.

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