Fikile Mbalula revealed that 1,612 people lost their lives on SA roads this past holiday season. Picture: SUPPLIED
Fikile Mbalula revealed that 1,612 people lost their lives on SA roads this past holiday season. Picture: SUPPLIED

Another festive season, another grim road death toll.

There was a 10% drop in road deaths over the festive season, transport minister Fikile Mbalula announced last Thursday. A total of 1,617 people died compared to the 1,789 deaths recorded over the same December 1 to January 15 holiday period in 2018/2019.

Fatal collisions fell by only 3% but there was a major reduction in the number of crashes with five or more fatalities.

At a press conference in Pretoria, Mbalula said the reduced death toll met the department’s annual 10% target, which he attributed to an intensified Arrive Alive campaign.

But it’s hardly any reason to celebrate, and he said much more needed to be done to meaningfully reduce road carnage.

Plane crashes like the recent one in Iran that claimed 176 lives grab international headlines, but nearly nine times more people than that lost their lives on local roads in the past holiday season. It’s a tragedy not lessened by being insidious.

SA remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries to drive in. It is listed 13th out of 195 countries in the number of road deaths per capita, with an alarming 28.2 road deaths per 100,000 population, according to a study released in January by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

It revealed that SA’s roads were far more dangerous than countries like Singapore, which topped the list as the safest country with just 3.53 deaths per 100,000 people.

The research found  those most likely to be injured in collisions were men aged 25-29, and that accident rates among that demographic were twice as common as among women of the same age.

THE DRIVER’S LICENCE POINTS DEMERIT SYSTEM BEING IMPLEMENTED IN 2020 HAS THE POTENTIAL TO POSITIVELY ADJUST DRIVER ATTITUDES

In 2010 SA signed up to the United Nations’ Decade of Action for Road Safety, a campaign seeking to halve the number of road deaths. It’s been a dismal failure: in 2010 there were 13,967 deaths on SA's roads, and in 2018 the number was 12,921 (the 2019 total isn’t yet available). Road deaths have averaged around 13,500 per annum for the past decade.

The reasons for the carnage are all too obvious with the dangerous and undisciplined driving practices witnessed daily on our roads, often combined with the use of alcohol.

A 2015 WHO report found that SA has the highest prevalence of road deaths associated with alcohol abuse. It estimates that 58% of all collisions on our roads are attributed to alcohol, and Arrive Alive reports that half the people who die on our roads have a blood alcohol level above the legal 0.05 gram per 100mm limit.

Mbalula wants to implement a 0% blood alcohol level for drivers, meaning that drivers would not be allowed to drink alcohol and drive at all.

Another measure being planned is to equip traffic officers with body cameras to combat bribery and corruption. “There will be no more cooldrink,” says Mbalula, who reflected that in the past festive season 85 people, including traffic officers, vehicle testing station staff, and ordinary motorists were arrested on charges of bribery, fraud and forgery.

He added that traffic law enforcement would intensify to a sustained 24/7 campaign in future, and further road safety measures would include the implementation of the AARTO system — which includes the driver demerit points system — in June.

The saddest part of the statistics is how avoidable they are. The WHO stated that only  38% of SA drivers and 31% of front-seated passengers wear their seatbelts, despite overwhelming evidence that seatbelts save lives.

There seems to be a perception that road safety lies solely in the hands of law enforcement. Road users are quick to point fingers at the state’s failure to reduce the carnage, but can’t be bothered to do something as simple as buckling up, or avoiding drinking and driving.

There is indeed much to criticise in terms of traffic policing, but it’s to be hoped that Mbalula is serious about his 24/7 enforcement campaign rather than just saying the right things to appease a nation shell-shocked by the road carnage. The driver’s licence points demerit system being implemented this year has the potential to positively adjust driver attitudes, but only if enforced properly rather than becoming a better way for revenue collection by authorities as the AA has warned.

I have also lately witnessed what seems to be an increased metro police presence on Gauteng’s roads. Last weekend I had an experience that boosted my confidence when I was pulled over by JMPD officers in an unmarked patrol car.

It was a routine check; I wasn’t disobeying the law and I was quickly on my way again, but it was encouraging to see metro officers patrolling the roads looking for moving violations instead of hiding in the bushes.

I for one support such a “sneaky” approach in a country that, in the absence of self-discipline by many road users, desperately needs innovative measures to quell the carnage.