Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Whatever the government is doing about road deaths clearly isn’t working. Each festive season is followed by collective despair at the carnage on the roads and this year’s death toll is particularly horrendous, at 1,714. This is up 5% compared to the December/January period last year, with an increase of 31% in the worst-hit province, Limpopo. Nor is this the end of it — those who die of their injuries within 30 days are also counted, so the toll will rise.

Some of the breakdowns produce even more tragic numbers — 34% of those who die are pedestrians, many of them children, and 40% are passengers — so drivers who cause the accidents are least likely to die.

As it is, SA has some of the worst road death rates anywhere. Although the total number of deaths each year, at almost 13,000, has come down from a peak of 15,000 in 2006, the death rate is still 26 per 100,000 of the population. That is four times higher than the average for the countries in the International Road Traffic Accident Database.

It compares with fewer than three road deaths per 100,000 of the population in the best-performing countries, such as the UK and Sweden, and even other emerging market countries such as Argentina and Chile have a rate which, at 12, is less than half of SA’s.

To say we have a problem is to state the blindingly obvious, and the numbers have got worse in the past couple of years despite the government’s commitment in the various national road safety strategies to cut road deaths by 50%, initially by 2020, but now by 2030. It might be more useful if SA were to set more realistic targets and be more realistic too about what has worked and what has clearly not.

Transport Minister Dipuo Peters’s latest salvo is to threaten to criminalise drunken driving even further, making it difficult for those who are caught to get bail. But while drunken driving, along with speeding, are clearly the main culprits of the festive season carnage, such threats are likely to do little other than create an even more fertile environment than we already have for police and traffic officers to solicit bribes.

For all the worthy "Arrive Alive" efforts to improve driver behaviour, attacking corruption is surely where efforts to slash road deaths need to start.

Corruption is a big part of why we have so many drivers who don’t know how to drive, because they have licences they bought rather than earned.

Peters has promised to do more to root out corruption in licensing, but the Special Investigating Unit warned more than a decade ago that as many as half the licences issued between 1998-2002 were irregular, and we haven’t seen much action.

The City of Johannesburg is to be commended for charging 160 allegedly corrupt officials in its licensing department — we need more of that. Corruption in traffic policing is as much, if not more, of a problem because too many of those tasked with reining in risky driving are interested merely in soliciting bribes, and drivers have come to expect they can buy their way out of trouble. Tackling corruption there too is crucial.

In addition, a different approach to policing traffic and traffic violations is needed — one that focuses on encouraging and incentivising drivers to improve their habits rather than on raising revenue for municipalities or lining the pockets of traffic officers.

If the fatality rate is to be cut, we also need more active enforcement of regulations for wearing seat belts and motorcycle helmets, and putting children in suitable car seats, along with enforcing drunken-driving and speeding rules.

Cutting fatalities also goes beyond traffic – better healthcare services and roadside trauma assistance would surely help to prevent deaths.

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