Festive season carnage is of grave concern

JOHANNESBURG – Justice Project South Africa (JPSA) has noted with sadness the current festive season road carnage statistics quoted by the Minister of Transport yesterday.

The fact that 845 people have lost their lives on our roads in road crashes between 1 and 19 December 2016 and represents an immediate 17% increase over the same period last year is indeed cause for grave concern, particularly in light of the fact that a great many of the persons who were seriously injured in these crashes will pass away within the 30 day post-crash monitoring period. Typically, fatalities rise by around 30% within this time-frame. This means that an average of 58 people would have been killed daily on our roads in this 19 day period and this represents the highest level since record-keeping of road fatality statistics began in South Africa.

Whilst inclement weather conditions could be viewed as being a contributory factor, the fact still remains that competent drivers would adjust their driving to the prevailing conditions and therefore, driver incompetence is and remains the leading contributing factor in these crashes. Drivers’ aggression, over-confidence in their own and their vehicles’ abilities, risk-taking and blatant disregard for the rules of the road and indeed, safe driving practices is a learned behaviour and cannot be over-emphasised.

What is of concern to JPSA however is the fact that the Minister of Transport and others seem to be of the opinion that greater degrees of road safety can come about by continuing to ignore the root cause of road crashes and carnage in South Africa – the improper and inconsistent traffic law enforcement which takes place for the greatest proportion of the year.

Last year both, the CEO of the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) and the Minister of Transport threatened motorists with extended detention periods in police custody for committing serious road traffic offences, stating that the Department of Transport was in discussions with the Department of Justice to reschedule such offences to Schedule 5 offences under the Criminal Procedure Act. A full twelve months have elapsed since then and the Minister is again asserting that her department is currently speaking with the Department of Justice and is again levelling threats which threats are clearly being ignored by delinquent motorists.

It is apparent that in light of the abysmally low conviction rate for offences such as driving under the influence of alcohol has prompted authorities and the Minister to assert that persons accused of this offence and others should be punished ahead of even seeing the inside of a court and not only is this belief unconstitutional, but it is also terribly misguided.

JPSA fully agrees that persons convicted of serious road crimes should face the full might of the law and be exposed to “harsh” sentences. Where it differs dramatically with the Minister and her cohorts is the juncture at which offenders should be punished. There have been and continue to be numerous examples of people who are arrested for serious road crimes who end up being acquitted or having charges withdrawn against them – not because of so-called “technicalities”, but because no proper evidence exists against them. In some cases, these arrests arise due to incompetence on the part of law enforcement officials and sometimes, they arise quite simply because the alleged offender refuses to pay a bribe. Punishing such persons up front, as the Minister asserts should be done invites retribution and litigation.

The sad fact of traffic law enforcement in South Africa is that it is not practiced properly, ethically and consistently throughout the year and “stepping up” law enforcement efforts over the festive season and decreeing that “People must behave on the road, finish and klaar!” cannot reasonably be expected to address the issue. Drivers who are allowed to drive as badly and dangerously as they wish for the greatest proportion of the year, provided they do so within the speed limit quite simply cannot reasonably be expected to behave themselves when the Minister decrees that they should – over the festive season.

Instead of blaming “chauvinistic male” drivers, going further to classify them by race and continuing to level threats, JPSA advises the Minister to do some introspection and start holding those responsible for ensuring safety on our roads to account. A complete overhaul of traffic law enforcement, evidence handling and prosecution is required, as is the urgent and effective, proactive eradication of corruption in driver licensing and traffic policing. The introduction of the long-overdue driving licence points-demerit system also could not hurt, but only if law enforcement is overhauled first.

We also advise motorists to take responsibility for their own behaviour, exercise extreme caution on our roads and remain within the confines of the law and safe driving practices at all times.