South African bus commuters stranded today as a result of a national transport strike should bear in mind one important fact: this strike is in aid of the commuting public almost as much as it is in support of the drivers.
The drivers do want better pay, and this, of course, does not directly involve commuters. But the drivers in this case are also demanding conditions that will improve safety — and that is of direct concern not only to every bus commuter, but to every road user.
As matters stand, the bus companies at a local level, are trying to enforce a “split shift” system to cater for the morning and evening rush hours. They propose that drivers, who may spend an hour or more getting to and from work, drive their buses for three hours in the morning rush. They are then supposed to take an eight-hour break before completing another five hours of driving to complete an eight-hour day.
Perhaps belatedly, road traffic authorities are realising that driver fatigue is a major contributor to the annual carnage of South Africa’s roads. And to the number of bumps and scrapes in crowded urban environments.
The more dramatic — and often tragic — cases involve buses, often on inter-city routes. In the case of coaches covering long distances, say the 1,600km from Johannesburg to Cape Town or vice-versa, two drivers are provided who stay with the bus all the way, without adequate sleeping accommodation. This is regarded as a 16-hour journey with each driver being paid only for the time they have “a foot on the pedal”, in other words, a four hours on, four hours off, scenario.
According to the drivers and their unions, this amounts not only to financial exploitation, but to a contribution to danger on the roads. They agree that mini bus taxis, travelling long distances between urban and rural areas, are involved in more accidents and pose an even greater danger; they feel that this area should also be more closely policed and that these drivers and their passengers should also be better protected.
But with the bottom lines of both the bus companies and the taxi owners under pressure, the unions claim that safety may be sacrificed, along with hopes of achieving a “decent wage”. And the average wage itself, at R8 500 a month, given the responsibilities involved, does seem to justify a double digit increase.