The fact that South Africa’s collective mind is sharply focused on road death statistics once every year during the end of the annual summer holidays might be counter-productive in allowing us to come to grips with this massive problem. It hides the fact that for the rest of the year it is a much deeper and broader problem than just a seasonal one.
A global World Health Organisation (WHO) survey revealed that with 33.2 deaths annually per 100 000 inhabitants, South Africa was almost 13% above the world average of 20.8 deaths. Only 22 countries world-wide had worse figures. Libya came in with 40.5 per 100000 as the worst and the Marshall Islands with 1.7 as the best.
Ironically, South Africa rated among the top countries in terms of its legal and institutional framework to deal with road safety. But when it comes to implementation and enforcement, South Africa fails dismally.
Statistics that are not explained, however, can also be misleading. To simplistically compare South African figures with those of the Marshall Islands, or even Australia’s five annual deaths per 100 000 inhabitants, ignores other factors like the number of vehicles per kilometre of road.
To only blame factors like speed could also oversimplification. According to the WHO survey Germany, known for its high-speed highways, has a figure of only five deaths annually per 100 000 inhabitants.
Similarly, the now apparent popular notion that road safety campaigns like Arrive Alive are dead and an absolute failure is premature. A more in-depth look at the available figures would suggest that if the increase in the number of road fatalities is compared to the increase in traffic volumes during the holiday season, heightened road safety awareness during that period is indeed saving lives.
According to the Road Traffic Management Corporation between 38 and 50 people die on South African roads daily throughout the year compared to 42 per day during the festive season. The big difference is higher levels of road safety awareness during the festive season, suggesting that South Africa might need not less but, rather, more awareness campaigning on a sustained basis throughout the year.
There also seems to be an almost singular focus on the contribution of motorists to the road fatalities when blame is dished out. Pedestrians contribute a massive 40% to the total figure or road deaths, suggesting that it is an area that deserves a lot more attention.
Same old story
The preliminary holiday road death figure of 1 465 announced by Transport Minister Ben Martins last week Thursday is a repeat of the same old story of so many years. Nothing has changed.
Not even the bully, and probably illegal, tactics of Western Cape transport MEC Robyn Carlisle in ordering traffic officers, without due legal process, to confiscate the car keys of motorists they deem too tired to drive and forcing them to rest, seem to have made a difference.
South Africa already has a world-class legal and institutional framework in place to ensure road safety. The country does not need more or harsher laws to deal with this problem, as seems to be suggested by, among others, the minister. It is effective implementation and the fine-tuning of existing plans, proper law enforcement and effective sustained safety campaigns on a holistic basis that are needed to turn the carnage on South African roads around.
Maybe a comprehensive study should be done to identify the commonalities between South Africa and other countries with bad road safety records. This should then be compared with those countries who do much better so that we can identify what they do differently to help inform future plans.