WHY in the name of all that is right and sensible do South African politicians seem so insistent on using our scandalously high rate of road deaths for political gain? It’s enough to drive a chap to drink.
We’ve had no fewer than two national ministers call for a lowering of the national speed limit, one on safety grounds and the other, hilariously, on the basis that it would reduce the country’s consumption of fuel.
Obviously it doesn’t occur to the minister responsible for the latter idea, Dipuo Peters, that fixing the traffic lights and the roads in Gauteng, or getting the freight railways working properly, would be a better solution. But that’s the way with governments: when they don’t do their own jobs properly, they have to find a way of making it the fault of the citizenry.
Now, in a very worrying development, the Western Cape’s MEC for transport, Robin Carlisle, has mooted reducing the limit to 110km/h as one of a series of new proposals out for public comment. I say it’s worrying not because there isn’t an ounce of sense in the idea but because the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Western Cape has a track record of enforcing its illiberal ideas with outrageous competence. This is why it’s impossible to buy a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc on a Sunday — the DA is saving us from ourselves.
What this means is that the MEC’s apocalyptically bad idea might actually happen.
First, I suppose, it’s worth pointing out that among Carlisle’s suggestions are some very good ideas — the ones about enforcing and policing the perfectly adequate laws we already have. So that means clamping down on the murderous practice beloved of South Africans — not strapping their kids into seatbelts. It means fining people for it. It means prosecuting reckless behaviour — cellphone use, drunkenness — with children in the car. These are already crimes, and the MEC’s suggestions as to how we enforce them are welcome. As is his outright ban on blue-light convoys for VIPs. Given that sanity would suggest it is the taxpayers trying to get to work who ought to be treated as VIPs, not the politicians, I heartily welcome the ban on this completely unnecessary banana-republic practice.
But it is with the new laws — and how passing new laws makes politicians positively tumescent with self-importance — that the MEC falls down. And that’s because the new laws he suggests are not for the benefit of society, but are infuriating political showboating.
As the MEC must surely know, speed is not a relevant factor in the vast majority of road deaths. Indeed, forcing drivers to spend more time on the road adds a burden of tiredness that will, in the long run, kill more than it saves.
Under current law, the safest place to be on a South African road is behind the wheel of your own car driven within the law. As the Automobile Association (AA) points out every year, nearly every accident is preceded by a violation of traffic law as it stands today.
So the 35% of road deaths (as at 2009) made up by pedestrians being hit by cars will not change, because being hit by a car at 110km/h has the same result as being hit at 120km/h. The fact that 50% of those killed on the road, including the pedestrians, are under the influence of alcohol will not change. The 42% of deaths caused by rollovers and head-on collisions — usually caused by illegal or reckless overtaking — will not change either.
Driving at 120km/h is not the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem is that South Africans break the law as it is, and the South African Police Service doesn’t police the full gamut of road law.
On the radio yesterday morning, Carlisle was, annoyingly, banging on about how a 110km/h speed limit was some kind of international best practice. He even had the nerve to cite Germany as a country that was "bringing in speed limits". That’s more than just a bit economical with the truth, given that the autobahn has a complex system of variable speed limits that are enforced in response to changing traffic conditions and weather, not because some politician sucked a number out of his thumb.
And, of course, when I say flexible, I mean it. Because when the weather’s clear and the traffic’s light and the road can take it, there’s no speed limit at all. Carlisle would be wise to stop referencing Germany.
What Carlisle knows, I suspect, but failed to mention, is that in Australia, for example, there is a 110km/h speed limit. But also in Australia there is compliance, a newer fleet of cars and drivers trained to drive. In South Africa, the AA reckons there are up to a million fraudulently obtained drivers’ licences out there, and there are only about 8-million powered vehicles in the nation’s fleet.
In Australia, people don’t drive 1,500km to the beach for their annual holiday. But in South Africa we do — in droves. And then we turn around and come home again. Carlisle wants that to take a few hours longer. The AA has spoken often of the factor tiredness plays in road accidents. What a blow for road safety making us more tired will be.
And, finally, his last very silly idea is to order that, by law, cars give cyclists 1.5m of space when they pass. This is ingenious.
Imagine, if you will, a cyclist going up Constantia Nek. Given that by law you’d need to give the cyclist 1.5m of space, and that by law you can’t cross the solid white line that runs mostly uninterrupted from Kirstenbosch to Hout Bay, in Carlisle’s world, it’s illegal to overtake that cyclist. It’s a ridiculous, unenforceable, unmeasurable idea — so drop it.
No. Just get police to do their job. Their entire job. So sure, prosecute speeding. But also do something about jaywalking and the crossing of solid white lines, the use of four-way stops and yield signs, the running of robots and the condition of vehicles. Clamp down on corruption at licensing centres.
We have good laws but poor compliance and enforcement. What the DA should do — just as the ruling party should nationally — is take the hard road, show some leadership, fix the real causes of road deaths and stop with the grandstanding, show-pony silliness. People’s lives are at stake.