Putting all the law enforcement officials in one  place, such as this roadblock at the Grasmere toll plaza is not the solution. PICTURE: MOTOR NEWS
Putting all the law enforcement officials in one place, such as this roadblock at the Grasmere toll plaza is not the solution. PICTURE: MOTOR NEWS

Community service punishments are needed to change the behaviour of South African drivers.

On average there are more than 11,000 gun-related deaths annually in the US, excluding suicides which more than doubles that number.

After the global outcry following the school shooting in Connecticut at the end of last year, citizens and the media in the US and around the world have been calling for action to be taken to try to curb the loss of life by implementing new gun controls.

On average in South Africa, more than 14,000 people are killed on our roads every year. That equates to at least 40 people every single day who do not make it home to their families. Piers Morgan does not do a programme about that on CNN. In fact, many media outlets in South Africa barely even report on it except during the festive season.

According to figures from the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), the number of fatalities on our roads between December 1 and January 8 was 1,465. The RTMC claims this figure is down by 10 on the same period the year before, but that period ran until January 10 so it is statistically skewed.

There is only one word that describes the situation on our roads and that is carnage. As is often the case, the majority of drivers on our roads obey the rules, but they are so often killed or maimed by those who do not.

Government agencies have started to move away from focusing on speed in their campaigns, but the reality remains that we see more speed enforcement through visible and hidden cameras than we see real policing.

"The hard truth is that until the government stops lying to itself and the public, things will not improve," says Howard Dembovsky, national chairman of Justice Project South Africa.

"It’s all very well saying that people should be ‘responsible citizens’, but many need a decent motivation to do so, and those who are need to be protected from those who aren’t. Traffic law enforcement is seriously lacking. In fact, were it not for speed cameras and road blocks, there would be next to none at all."

"Driver behaviour remains one of the biggest challenges," says Ashref Ismail, spokesman for the RTMC. "The RTMC and its municipal partners will strengthen enforcement, education and communication around critical, lethal offences such as drinking and driving/walking, excessive speeding and dangerous overtaking (moving violations)."

The big question though is whether the RTMC’s partners will actually take up the baton of improving enforcement. Last year the RTMC distanced itself from one of its biggest partners, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), citing bribery and corruption among the reasons for its decision. RTMC acting CEO Collins Letsolao even stated at a media briefing in December that the Arrive Alive campaign run by the Department of Transport "has lost its legs", as he launched the "Get there. No regrets" campaign.

Given this major lack of cooperation between the enforcement agencies, one has to wonder just how the situation can improve and how the public can have any faith in those who are supposed to be protecting us. In the US, police vehicles carry the age-old slogan "Serve and protect", something which many traffic enforcement agencies seem to forget in South Africa.

However, it is not just about traffic enforcement — it is, as Ismail pointed out, about driver behaviour. On any given drive to work you will see drivers not wearing seatbelts, children standing on the back seat, employees squashed into the back of bakkies, vehicles swerving across three lanes to make a junction because they sit in the outside lanes of highways, vehicles driving through red traffic lights and so on. The list of infringements we all witness daily is endless, yet they continue.

Is it any wonder our road death toll is so high and, before you say it, no it is not just taxis, although with so many people squeezed into minibuses, the death toll per crash is invariably higher.

More people die in car crashes than in any other form of motorised transport, but even more deaths are those of pedestrians. Government must give serious attention to ensuring that all road infrastructure includes safe walkways for pedestrians, but more also needs to be done to address pedestrian behaviour.

Then there is the matter of punishment. Fines are one thing but this year Motor News and its team will be campaigning for the implementation of community service punishment. In 2009, Dembovsky arranged for two offenders to spend time with ER24’s advanced paramedics. Neither offender re-offended.

"We firmly believe that traffic offenders should, rather than being fined, be sentenced to community service in government hospital trauma units," says Dembovsky. "If we were to sentence people to complete such service, the length of the community service could easily be defined by the severity of the offence they commit. For example, for speeding the sentence could be one hour community service for each kilometre an hour over the speed limit.

"This would not only achieve the cleanest trauma units in the world, but would also expose these people to the consequences of their actions. This will require a complete transformation in the way that traffic policing, prosecution and sentencing is practised in South Africa," he concludes.

It is a plan that Ismail and the RTMC are also looking at. "We are communicating with Department of Justice and the National Prosecuting Authority to explore the possibility of securing innovative sentences that will act as an effective deterrent," he says. "Among these could be retesting of learner and driving licences, community service at mortuaries/casualty wards and the like.

We also want to roll out the name and shame campaign this year."

There have been many calls for more "active citizenry" in South Africa in 2013. As good an idea as this is, it should not replace proper law enforcement. Both are required if we are to ensure that you make it to the next festive season alive.