Business Day

Local is lekker for road safety too


SA’s road safety record is not the worst in the world, nor even in Africa. According to World Health Organisati­on statistics, we come in 177th of 182 countries surveyed.

But should we, as an ostensibly caring nation striving to compete among and be measured against the best in the world, be satisfied with propping up the bottom of the table on an issue that is literally a matter of life or death? Our annual road death rate of 32 per 100,000 of the population is only marginally better than that of notoriousl­y chaotic and lawless Nigeria (34 per 100,000), and considerab­ly worse than far less developed neighbouri­ng countries such as Zambia and Swaziland, whose rate of 24 per 100,000 is still considered unacceptab­ly high by internatio­nal standards.

It is perhaps unreasonab­le to expect a large developing country such as SA to match the likes of Sweden and Iceland ( just three road deaths per 100,000 of the population each year) or Switzerlan­d (four), with their superior infrastruc­ture, more modern vehicle fleets, better law enforcemen­t and more educated driving citizens. But given our middle-income status and relatively developed economy compared with much of the third world, should we not be aiming far higher — mid-table, perhaps — and asking searching questions about why we consistent­ly fail to make progress in reducing the death toll?

As in so many other areas of life in SA, the government often makes the right noises with regard to the carnage on our roads, but when it comes to practical steps to end it, it is all too often a case of two steps forward, one-and-three-quarters back. There has been a seemingly endless succession of structures set up and national strategies put together to bring some order to our roads, but to little effect.

Much like SA’s still horrific crime rate, the road death rate has reached a plateau, but failed to drop meaningful­ly. It is almost as if we believe we can will things to improve just by talking about the subject endlessly, throwing ever more money at department­al budgets and drawing up new plans to layer on top of the old, failed ones.

The South African Roads Federation, a lobby group that represents the road transport industry and seeks to promote the adoption of sound policies, hit the nail on the head this week when it pointed out, in response to the sharp increase in the Easter road death toll, that “holding more conference­s and drawing up extensive strategies is not the answer … what is required is determined political leadership and much stricter law enforcemen­t”.

It is increasing­ly apparent that there is a direct link between SA’s high road-death rate and the culture of lawlessnes­s and impunity that has become establishe­d in society in recent years and is also responsibl­e for the soaring corruption figures. Blue light abuse, politicall­y connected individual­s being allowed to wriggle out of drunk-driving charges, the glorificat­ion of the wealthy driving overpowere­d cars … little wonder that buying a fraudulent licence is acceptable to so many, up to half the heavy vehicles stopped on national roads have mechanical defects, and so many drivers of public transport think nothing of exceeding the speed limit.

The transport MECs are right: the Road Traffic Management Corporatio­n should be closed. Apart from internal control weaknesses and abuses of procuremen­t procedures that led to R360m in irregular expenditur­e in the 2008-09 financial year, the corporatio­n has patently failed to achieve its objective of improving road safety.

A few of its functions, such as running national publicity campaigns and co-ordinating activities across provincial boundaries, should be taken over by Department of Transport.

But the rest should be devolved to the provincial authoritie­s, which are in a far better position to make a practical difference by getting out there and enforcing the law.

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