Traffic cops must earn drivers' respect

(Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
(Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

“I’M TIRED… sick and tired…” sang comic genius Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles. I feel you, Maddy.

I’m tired of the mayhem on our roads. I note that the latest death toll figure (that ghoulish feature of the annual ‘festive’ season) is up 5% on last year, at 1 714 deaths. That’s around 42 people killed every day for about 40 days. And one source suggests there are at least five serious injuries for every death.

How does that compare to the average day of the year? The last annual report on the Road Traffic Management Corporation’s website is 2011 – there, the toll was 13 802, which translates to nearly 38 deaths per day.

There is a report for the first trimester of 2016, which looks rather better at around 32 deaths a day, but a figure I’ve located elsewhere seems to indicate that for the whole year it’s more like 37 deaths per day, which seems likely to me – do you think South African improved a stack in the last five years? Yeah, me neither.

By the way, that first trimester 2016 report is an interesting read. South Africans are safest on our roads on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – Fridays are bad, Sundays are worse, but Saturdays? Stay home, friends. Especially if you’re in KZN, the most dangerous province of all. Or Gauteng in second spot. And don’t drive between 17:00 and 23:00. Don’t be a passenger – passengers have a death toll about 35% higher than the drivers.

Mind you, being a pedestrian is even worse. Oh, and in spite of their reputation, minibuses are not nearly as dangerous as cars and light delivery vehicles. And finally – don’t go on the roads while being male. Men make up 76.2% of deaths. ‘Strue.

The absence of annual reports for five full years is, perhaps, a reflection of the overall performance of this department. Minister Dipuo Peters got a D in the annual Mail & Guardian Cabinet annual report card, in both 2015 and 2016.

“Road carnage remains an accepted reality, with the known causes of speed, driving under the influence of alcohol and unroadworthy vehicles cited regularly and resignedly, but there is never any clear plan for how it will be tackled,” the M&G writes.

Resignation is not what we need. Ministers and NumbaWan may sail through the traffic, heralded by blue lights and accompanied by thick-necked security, but the rest of us are taking our lives into our hands each time we venture onto the roads. Urgency is needed: wake up!

And not just to save lives: “The total cost of RTCs [road traffic crashes] on South Africa’s road network for 2015 amounted to an estimated R142.95 billion – equating [to] 3.4 per cent of GDP,” wrote Deon Roux in an August 2016 report (Cost of Crashes in South Africa). This is considerably more than other middle income countries, where it’s about 2.2% of GDP.

So what needs to be done? When authorities speak on this issue, the trend is to make it the road users’ problem (“All road users must co-operate to make our roads safer,” says Zuma, and of course we should all be obeying the road rules and driving with consideration for others. No question.

But people on the whole don’t obey rules because they’ve thought about it and see it’s the right thing to do – they obey because they know there are consequences if they don’t. They obey because there’s visible, constant, active enforcement of laws. And two years ago, a World Health Organisation report stated: “... [in South Africa] speed limit enforcement scored 3 out of 10, and seat-belt laws scored even worse in terms of enforcement: 2 out of 10.” (Overall, we were 4/10.)

The same report noted that Brits are among the worst binge-drinkers in the world, beating Belarus and Ukraine. But anyone with friends in Britain will know that there’s a fear of driving drunk – because the law is enforced, daily and nightly. You are very likely to get caught on any day of the week, at any time of year.

Cops on little camping stools behind speed cameras

Not so in Joburg, where for many years the bulk of enforcement efforts seems to have been focused on generating revenue through putting cops on little camping stools behind speed cameras, generating millions of fines… which drivers may only get wind of weeks or months after the fine falls due (ask me – I’ve had several), and in recent months, not at all (courtesy letters have not been sent since October 2015).

Now if you tell a puppy five hours after he chewed the shoe that he’s a bad dog, it has no effect, does it? If we still had cops jumping out of the bushes to flag us down, we’d have far fewer fines – but what was issued would be more effective in creating law-abiding drivers.

(It’s not even effective in generating revenue: under the 2008 AARTO Act piloted in Joburg and Tshwane, “The number of fines had increased to 1,712,931, but the payment rate now was 4.71% …”)

Minister, you don’t have to make drunk driving an offence as bad as rape, as you’ve threatened. Start with visible enforcement of speed and moving violations against the laws already in place, throughout the year. Issue fewer fines, but make them count. Ramp up the efficiency and effectiveness of your traffic officers and the admin functions behind them, and earn the respect of the drivers on our roads.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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