Look to the real reasons for SA road carnage

Posted on November 15, 2013


The road crash massacre on the Moloto Road in Mpumalanga this week provides an horrific portent for the annual festive season slaughter on the highways and byways of South Africa. And the manner in which the deaths of 29 people were reported, being consigned, for the most part, to the inside pages of newspapers, reveals just how accepting the country has become of such carnage.

It indicates yet again that little — if anything — has changed across the years; that conditions for professional drivers and for road users in general, are worse than they were perhaps 20 or 30 years ago; and that the public in general has become inured to the regular spillage of gore and blood on the country’s roadsides.

When accidents with numerous fatalities occur, there is an immediate focus on the outpouring of grief by families and friends, but little or no analysis of the long-term consequences for parents, dependents or physically and emotionally damaged survivors. Nor are there any serious attempts to expose and confront the myriad causes or to lay blame where blame belongs, let alone suggest obvious solutions.

In the various media there also are almost always references to an apparently “notorious stretch” of one or other “Death Road”, the implication being that the blame somehow lies with sections of particular roads. However, amid futile cries that “some thing must be done” there are investigations of these tragedies by usually competent authorities.

But these investigations tend to focus on the immediate causes of any specific tragedy, they do not paint an holistic picture, looking to the sometimes complex legacies of the past to pinpoint causes that should long ago have been dealt with. And, labelled as the causes of specific accidents are issues such as driver error, perhaps compounded by the weather and poor visibility, faulty brakes, poor maintenance or the deterioration of the road surface.

However, as the transport unions have pointed out over the years, that catch-all term, “driver error” is all too often seen as the beginning and the end of such investigations. Yet the unions maintain that professional drivers are frequently as much the victims as any of the other casualties on roads that are frequently in need of repair. These drivers are also placed under extraordinary pressure by the system in which they have to operate.

With the exception, perhaps, of wage rates for permanent employees of larger freight companies, the conditions for drivers overall and the roads on which they operate, are probably worse today than they have been for 20 or 30 years. Partly, this is a legacy of the road freight deregulation of 1984 that put a massive — and still growing — number of juggernauts on roads that were not designed for them.

The racial bias of South Africa’s history has also ensured that the majority of South African workers live further from their places of work than do their counterparts in other lands. So they are forced to use public transport, most commonly taxis and buses, that compete on the roads with the juggernauts.

“We should remember that, before 1984 there was a rail monopoly and it was necessary to get a permit even to move your own possessions by road,” says independent transport analyst, Paul Browning. The railways, as a complacent, Afrikaner job creation entity, was shunted into the background as a politically connected road transport lobby became dominant.

Then, with traffic of all kinds increasing, the government in 1993 raised the legal axle load rate from 8 200kg to 9 000kg. But the roads and bridges constructed in the years before then had not only been designed for 8 200kg — they were also meant for tyres that were not so as hard on the paving.

Today the maximum load a truck can carry and tow in South Africa is greater than anything permitted on the roads of Europe, North America or Australia. “This was despite seven studies showing this would have a detrimental effect on the roads,” says Browning.

As a result, many roads have been effectively chewed up as freight haulage company demands were accommodated. And the juggernauts, along with the buses, taxis and other vehicles, have had to deal with this.

“So don’t blame the victims, blame the system — and do something about it,” says Tony Franks, general secretary of the Transport and Omnibus Workers’ Union. Like the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union and several transport specialists, he also points to inadequate training and lax enforcement at a time when tight profit margins encourage many companies to cut corners.

“And there is also no perusal of hours on the road or of sleep schedules for drivers,” says Witwatersrand University sleep specialist Alison Bentley. As a result, drivers who fall asleep at the wheel are seen to be at fault because , as “reasonable men” they should have known when they were too tired to drive.

But drivers are often under incredible pressure to meet deadlines, often well outside agreements struck within the official bargaining council. Unofficial bonuses are also paid for the delivery of goods in less than the normal time stipulated.

Yet, more than a decade ago, research from Australia revealed that lack of sleep could be equated to alcohol consumption, especially as it pertained to drivers. The research discovered that an average driver, not having slept for 21 hours, would be able to function at the same level as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 per cent, or well above the level for a drunk driving conviction.

It also reveled that inadequate sleep over a protracted period results in slurred speech, wandering concentration and apparent difficulty in physical co-orientation. In fact, rather like being very drunk.

All of this has been known for many years by the authorities who have received reports from academics, trade unions and from media investigations. Perhaps, in the wake of the Moloto Road tragedy,  it is finally time time for some serious action to be taken to remedy the situation.