Speed policy: what’s the limit?

It is a knee jerk reaction to a serious matter whereby he has possibly overlooked other more pressing burning platforms to address road carnage in South Africa. This continued mayhem on the roads is not only to be deplored for the senseless loss of life, but it also costs the fiscus billions of rands, which could better spent on upgrading our infrastructure to give our citizens a better quality of life.

Germany has one of the lowest accident rates in Europe, and yet it has only a ‘recommended’ speed of 130 km/h on its autobahns, with no real upper limit imposed on cars and vehicles. According to statistics from the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, there were only 2.2 road user fatalities per billion vehicle kilometres on German autobahns in 2008, compared to 4.2 in Austria, 4.2 in Belgium and 4.5 in the United States where much lower speed limits are imposed.

The most conclusive evidence, however, that lowering the speed does not decrease the incidence of accidents comes from the US Department of Transportation, Research, Development and Technology Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center’s Survey ‘Effects of Raising and Lowering Speed Limits.’

I underline the report’s conclusions that the majority of motorists did not decrease or increase their speeds as a result of lowering or raising the speed limits by eight, 16 or 24 km/h. To quote the report itself, ‘..the majority of motorists do not alter their speed to conform to speed limits they perceive as unreasonable for prevailing conditions.’ And what’s more, the data clearly shows that lowering speed limits did not reduce accidents. On the contrary, compliance decreased when speed limits were lowered and accidents tended to increase, whereas compliance improved when speed limits were raised and accidents tended to decrease.”

So if speed is not the reason for South Africa’s high accident and death rate, what is?

I am adamant that it is the rampant lawlessness on our roads and the failure of authorities to monitor and enforce laws, together with factors such as unlicensed, overloaded and unroadworthy vehicles and driving under the influence.

Rules and laws are only as good as their enforcement and we have a low propensity for enforcing regulation across many fronts. Probably even more so in the traffic department which has been the subject of countless corruption scandals in the past. These are the issues that must be tackled with determination and integrity, not with yet more unenforceable laws as a sop to governmental conscience.

Camera traps are not the answer. Certainly they are a great source of revenue, which we all know is widely abused by metros and municipalities and has become almost criminal and scandalous in its application. This greedy approach to earning revenue rather than tackling road safety and traffic management problems needs serious attention.

So here’s a six-point plan Mr Minister:

  •  Recuperate the RTMC and get an effective team in place to have this department doing what it was set up to do several years ago.  You still have an Acting CEO of the RTMC in place following numerous management changes over the past few years and a very slow pace of implementation since its inception under Minister Jeff Radebe’s watch.
  •  Tackle this insatiable desire by metros to use speed trapping as a source of revenue.  It’s time to erect highly visible cameras – painted bright orange – in high accident zones, with significant warning signs, just as the process is supposed to be carried out and as it is in many parts of the world where it works.
  •  Get your law enforcement officers out on the road, doing what they ought to be doing – becoming effective in taking law-breaking drivers, along with un-roadworthy and unlicensed cars off the roads. You can’t do this by hiding in the bushes, behind bus stops and bridges or sitting in the office. According to the RTMC report of March 2011, we have over 400,000 un-roadworthy vehicles on our roads (one imagines those they have counted – what about those they missed?)
  •  Implement an action plan to address corruption in the driver and vehicle licensing and testing environment seriously.  It is no secret that this is a critical issue.
  •  There is one fraternity that has complete disregard for vehicle and road safety in this country and this is the taxi industry.  What makes matters worse is that many other motorists have started to pick up their bad habits and now follow in their tracks down emergency lanes, jumping lights and driving unlawfully.  Serious engagement with the taxi operators. needs to happen to bring them into line with good road mannerisms and legally compliant vehicles.  There appears to be a sense of fear and trepidation around a ‘taxi backlash and road blockades’ by the authorities when it comes to addressing this growing problem.  The authorities know this is getting out of hand, but doing nothing and failing to act decisively is making matters worse.
  •  Address the shocking state of our traffic lights, road signage and road conditions.

Take these matters in hand and you can be assured of a significant reduction in road carnage and then, if still an issue, the decision to introduce a speed limit reduction should be considered, but I doubt it will be required as we may have become a nation of law-abiding courteous, road users all driving with valid driver’s licences in vehicles that are fit for our roads.