Ghost riders in the fast lane are really traffic busters
There is zero tolerance of violations of the rules of the road, reports LEILA SAMODIEN. MXOLISI MADELA took the pictures
IF YOU thought you were safe from the authorities when taking a quick cellphone call behind the wheel, or jumping a red light, you thought wrong. The days when you could glance into your rear view mirror in case a traffic cop was lurking nearby, and then hit the petrol, are no more. The “Ghost Squad” won’t have it any other way.
Sure, drag racers, drunk drivers and reckless road users are a high priority, but the squad says nobody’s “safe”.
“Nobody’s above the law,” says Ghost Squad head Lance Crowster. “Whoever transgresses will be dealt with.”
And mercy is not a word in these guys’ vocabulary either. The 12 members each dish out 20 or more fines a day. On a quiet week, they make a half dozen arrests.
“We have a zero tolerance approach towards law enforcement,” says Crowster. “If there’s an offence, a penalty will be enforced.”
But he didn’t let us take his word for it. It’s Tuesday morning, nearly 10.30am, and a Weekend Argus team is driving along the N2 with the Ghost Squad.
There has been speculation – in chain emails, on Facebook and around dinner tables – about what the squad drive. Here’s what’s true: there are four white Golf GTIs, a white turbo-charged Astra, and six 1300cc Honda motorcycles in various colours. All are unmarked.
But Crowster says it would be pointless for people to use these descriptions in trying to avoid them. Next month, the squad is set to get a number of additional cars and motorcycles. The vehicle makes will not be the same, and this time they won’t stick to traditional white when picking out colours.
Each car is fitted with blue lights – two small lights hidden beneath the front grille and another two in the back window.
There’s even a vehicle, owned by the traffic department but sometimes used in special Ghost Squad operations, that is fitted with a camera ready to capture footage of high-speed chases and cheeky offenders.
Today, though, the squad goes out for a routine patrol. They take out all five cars and four motorbikes.
At first, they’re a dead giveaway; a row of similar white cars cruising down the highway. But then they begin to break up, each one on a mission to spot traffic violations.
The first to be pulled over is the driver of a black Toyota Yaris for talking on his cellphone while driving.
The officer puts on his lights, pulls up to the Yaris in the next lane and a siren blares from somewhere in the squad car.
The driver, a man who looks to be in his 40s, is confused at first, his eyes wide. Then, when the realisation hits him, he pulls over to the side of the N2.
When the officer gets out of his super-fast car, there’s no mistaking who he is. He’s wearing the uniform of an ordinary traffic cop – a standard procedure for every Ghost Squad member, and an assurance for road users that they’re actually law enforcement officers.
The driver cracks a quick smile, amazement, as the officer walks over. There’s no knowing what’s going through the driver’s mind, but it’s surely somewhere along the lines of: “Where on earth did he come from?”
The driver is fined, the squad moves on, and in a matter of a couple of minutes, another offender is caught out.
This time, it’s a man, seemingly in his 20s, driving a souped-up Honda. His suspension is too low, rendering it illegal, and he has blue lights fitted in the front of his car, next to the headlights.
A handful of Ghost Squad officers get busy checking his suspension, inspecting the rest of the car and writing out tickets.
He doesn’t get off as easy as the Yaris driver – his car is suspended for several weeks, giving him time to adjust the lights and suspension.
Next to be stopped is an overloaded taxi, then a car with no licence plate, then, finally, a taxi with a dodgy front wheel and a broken tow bar.
He mumbles an excuse to the Ghost Squad officer, who pays little attention as he inspects the vehicle and writes feverishly on a fine slip.
“I always tell people that if they can give me an excuse I’ve never heard before, I’ll let them off,” jokes Crowster. “That never happens.”
Most weekends the team carries out special operations, such as drunk driving and drag race busts.
They are expected to work all hours of the day and night, any day of the year, but Crowster says the team is made up of 12 dedicated officers who were “fearless” in carrying out their duties.
Not only have they been hand picked for the Ghost Squad, they’ve also undergone special training, such as advanced driving lessons and sessions on how to handle their firearms.
One or two of them have even risked their lives in the line of duty before joining the squad when it was launched in July.
“A few years ago,” says one squad member, “I came across a hijacking by mistake and intervened.”
The officer was shot in the arm, leaving a long scar across his forearm.
“It’s not that we think we’re better than any other traffic officer,” says another squad member. “We just hope that our mindset can be an inspiration to other officers; that if they worked hard enough, they could also be part of the Ghost Squad.”
The squad’s success, Crowster says, is so tremendous that they’ve been getting death threats on social networking website Facebook. This is one of the reasons they’ve declined to be named.
Still, the officers have brushed aside the threats, saying they won’t allow it affect their work.
To keep things going during tougher times, they also share lighter-hearted moments.
“The other day we stopped a guy who was cutting across the lanes on Vanguard,” an officer says. “When we pulled him over, he was drunk, drunk; he couldn’t even see straight. He just looked at us through the window, looked forward, revved his car and drove on – straight into a fence!”
This weekend, the squad is back on the road, this time looking out for drunk drivers.
“We’re not scared to take strict action against people or to arrest people when they’ve transgressed,” says Crowster. “We usually arrest people for drunk driving or for negligent and reckless driving.”
You’ve been warned.
QUICK AS LIGHTNING: One of the Ghost Squad cars – a Golf GTI – flashes its concealed blue lights from behind the grille.
HITTING THE ROAD: The squad heads out on patrol.
NO EXCUSES: A driver who was caught talking on his cellphone while driving down the N2 is given a fine by a member of the City of Cape Town’s Ghost Squad.
REVVED UP: Members of the City of Cape Town’s Ghost Squad get ready to patrol the N2 on their powerful motorcycles.