I would consider myself very lucky. I grew up in Europe, went to school in the UK and learned to drive there. Obviously when you live there, you have no other driving experiences to compare it to, so it is human nature to criticize… or maybe that’s just my nature, being the miserable ray of rain clouds that I am. I digress; Having moved back to South Africa a number of years ago though, I can honestly say that people in the UK don’t know how good they have it! The standard of driving in the UK is, generally speaking, outstanding when compared to some of the knuckle dragging fuzz-chuzzles we have scooting about our roads in Capetown. The mentality of drivers here versus what I had grown used to in the UK, simply goes beyond my level of understanding.
Take drinking and driving. In England, it is complete Taboo! It’s enough to make you lose your job, your friends and your license in one foul sweep. Generally speaking people don’t do it, because they understand how dangerous it is. They understand the consequences of possibly causing an accident, injuring someone… or worse. In South Africa, drinking and driving is for amateurs…. here we practice DRUNK driving. We practice drunk driving like it’s some sort of competition! Having grown up in the UK, I still refuse to drink and drive, and no offense if you partake, but I think that driving under the influence is pretty damn stupid. I thus find myself in a very small minority in this country – people who don’t get behind the wheels of their cars after enjoying a few drinks. The interesting thing is this, most people in my small, little club, abstain for completely different reasons to my friends in the UK. It’s not the thought of road safety or avoiding terrible injury and death that motivates their choices. It’s simply the idea of being caught. In other words, if they could ‘get away with it’ they would do it.
Once I had seen this first hand, I suddenly had an epiphany – and all the strange driving habits of people in this country started making more and more sense to me. Generally speaking, people in South Africa drive with ZERO regard for fellow road users. They simply drive any which way they like and are happy to do so, as long as they don’t get caught. People drink themselves stupid, then drive home on routes where they know cops aren’t patrolling. People drive in emergency lanes, overtake dangerously, skip queues, jump traffic signals and drive barely mobile rust buckets with 3 wheels and no brakes! All because they know they won’t get caught; they know that for the most part, they can get away with it.
Having witnessed this level of lawlessness on our roads, and seen the carnage it causes and experiencing the loss that comes with it, made me ask the simplest and yet seemingly most elusive question – “Why are things so different here?”
The answers are probably more complicated than just one man’s observations, but I have seen a couple of troubling differences between South Africa and the UK, that could shed some light on why our road death figures are so much worse than the UK. How much worse? Well the World Health Organization’s figures from 2013 are truly shocking! The WHO estimated 1827 road deaths for the UK in 2013, compared with 13 273 in South Africa for the same period. To try and ‘level the playing field’ the WHO also publishes their road death figures as a number of deaths per 100’000 population. So in 2013, 2.9 people per 100’000 died on the UK’s roads. In South Africa that figure was 25.1 – more than 8 times worse.
Could it be the way we are taught to drive? I certainly don’t believe that the K53 manual is up-to-date, or even a very good method to start with. The driving test is also set up to ‘catch you out’ rather than teach you safe driving practices. It is a well known fact that if you drive at 60kph in a 60 zone on your driving test, you will be failed for speeding. The test, and the K53 are quite frankly idiotic and grossly antiquated. Driving instructors don’t help either – they teach learner drivers how to pass the test rather than teaching them how to drive. I get hugely frustrated on a daily basis as I get stuck behind learner drivers doing half the speed limit on major commuter roads during peak hour – because their instructors offer a ‘shuttle service’ – teaching their students how to drive to and from work. I understand that for the learner driver this has some appeal since they can spend their travel budget on driving lessons and not have the ‘extra’ expense, but at the end of the day it is a very ineffective way to learn how to drive. Not to mention the endless frustration it causes for other motorists trying to get to and from work. When I was learning to drive in the UK, my instructors would try to expose me to as many different types of roads as possible; we never drove in the same areas twice! They would NEVER take you on main commuter roads until you were actually able to drive down those roads making reasonable progress.
Another key difference is the level of consideration given to other road users. In the UK, people stick to the left lane and only move to the right to over-take. When someone comes up behind them, they move out the way. There is nothing more mortifying for a UK driver than to be at the head of a queue of traffic, holding people up. Likewise, they let people out of side turnings. They don’t shoot down side roads and shove in at the front to skip the queues either. I’m not saying these things NEVER happen over there, but certainly to a far lesser extent than they happen here. UK drivers, for the most part, are very considerate and polite to other road users. Skip back to SA and lane hogging has become such a headache, that the law was changed to make ‘undertaking’ legal. Drivers here, push and shove their way through traffic as if everyone else was just sitting there waiting for them to come through. No-one thinks anything of someone driving up the emergency lane and shoving back into traffic further down the road. ‘Turning Lanes’ are just more opportunities for overtaking, regardless of what the road marking says. Taxi drivers are in a lawless class of their own, spending all morning shoving and pushing through traffic to get to the front, and as soon as they spot a passenger on the sidewalk, they stop in the middle of the road holding up all the motorists they had just shoved out of their ways!
I do not blame our shocking road death statistics on either the useless K53, stupid driving instructors or even the inconsiderate ass-hats ruining driving for everyone on a daily basis. The blame for every single road death, every single family who has had to suffer such a painful loss, the blame for all those people who never made it home – falls entirely on our traffic law enforcement officials. Deny it all they want our traffic department is FAR more interested in generating revenue from issuing fines than they can ever be about road safety. Their attitude is one of ‘we will catch you and fine you’ rather than ‘we are here to keep you safe on our roads.’ They deploy underhanded tactics to ensure maximum money flow rather than effectively reducing our road deaths and accidents. You are far more likely to encounter a speed camera on a straight, level and open section of road where it is perfectly safe to drive quickly, rather than a road passing by a school, where speeding would be most dangerous. But the sad truth is that the latter camera would not make them as much money as the first, so that’s the one they go with. Thankfully legislation is now being changed stating that all cameras must be clearly visible, but there are still those ‘hidden’ green boxes in Stellenbosch, those mobile tripods hidden behind bushes and crash barriers. A speed camera in the UK has to be extremely visible to road users, thus making them slow down – in fact I’m pretty sure most speed cameras in the UK can be seen from space! Average speed cameras, that have been proven ineffective all over the world, are being deployed all over the Western Cape because they might not be effective in reducing fatalities, but they do generate massive amounts of revenue.
Have you ever noticed how the traffic department never release press statements with reliable road death figures in them? They are very quick to release figures on how many fines they have issued though – and are very eager to point out that they have issued more fines than in previous years… every year. If your mandate is to keep our roads safe, yet your modus operandi shows that your sole purpose in life is to milk road users for every penny you can – it is no wonder that South African drivers have no respect for the law. If you look at the way that cops and traffic cops drive themselves, it’s no wonder we have no respect for them. When I know several people just in my small group of friends who have successfully bribed traffic cops out of giving them a fine, you simply can not respect them. Bully tactics and fear mongering is no way to harbour respect, yet our traffic cops can’t seem to play any other game! I’ve seen it a thousand times since moving back to South Africa. When UK law enforcement abandons a particular technology or method for being ineffective, our law enforcement starts singing its praises and implements their own version of it, because it usually brings with it big tender contracts and revenue generation (average speed cameras and indiscriminate road blocks spring to mind). When our road deaths are more than 8 times worse than theirs, why don’t we follow their example? – simple
Why does the traffic department spend most of its time trying to issue fines for speeding rather than patrolling for bad drivers, or vehicles that are simply not road worthy? Well, speeders are easy to catch using a camera, minimum effort, maximum money! Vehicles that aren’t roadworthy are a massive problem on our roads and estimates vary hugely depending on where you look, but some sources claim as many as 60-70% of fatal accidents in this country involve a vehicle that wasn’t supposed to be on the road in the first place. However, people who can not afford to maintain their cars, probably couldn’t afford to pay a fine either, so there is no point in prosecuting them. The traffic department tries to offset public perception by taking unworthy vehicles off the road every once in a while by having a big roadblock and telling us how many vehicles they took off the road, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to how many speeding fines they issue every day. It’s been very difficult finding accurate statistics, but some estimates claim that as much as 75% of traffic fine revenue is generated from speeding fines, yet Stats SA show that the number of fatal traffic accidents actually caused by speeding alone is less than 7%.
Sadly our traffic department uses fine revenues as their measuring stick of how well their doing, rather than road death statistics. And if you really want to see how badly that affects us, consider this. As mentioned, the UK suffered 1827 road deaths in 2013 compared to over 13 thousand in SA. During that time the UK generated around R1.3 billion rand (on today’s exchange rate) from fixed penalty notices, or fines (data supplied by UK Government Consolidated Account statements). During the same period South Africans paid more than R4.7 Billion in fines (data supplied by Stats SA).
Until our traffic department starts doing their actual jobs properly, more people will die. People will blame the person who caused the accident, and they will be hated by the loved ones left behind for the way they drove, but make no mistake; Every single person who dies on our roads, is just another failure by our traffic department. How do they sleep at night?