‘Ghastly’ reality on SA roads

Posted on May 13, 2017


For many South African truck, bus and coach drivers, little has changed in their generally harsh working conditions over the past 25 years. For some, conditions have worsened.

Since I mentioned the problem — and extreme danger — of driver fatigue, in this column in March, many more allegations and much more evidence has surfaced from drivers. And driver fatigue is only one of a plethora of complaints that often highlight extremely dangerous practices.

This also comes at a time when the carnage on South African roads reached ghastly proportions at the Easter weekend with 235 deaths, and more than 1 000 people injured. What then came to the fore was a problem I first raised publicly 20 years ago: the huge number of “fake” licences.

In 1997 the transport ministry estimated that there were more than 1 million drivers licenses that had been “improperly issued”, with drivers not having undergone the required tests. At that time the most prominent case of a “fake licence” to come to light was that of one issued to Baleka Mbete, now the Speaker of parliament.

According to truck drivers interviewed, little has changed. The “going price” for an upgrade to a “Code 14” licence to drive a heavy motor vehicle of more than 16 tons, towing a trailer of more than 750 kg is between R4,000 and R5,000. However I have been unable yet to verify this.

But there is plenty of evidence that drivers of these juggernauts often suffer fatigue at levels that would make them just as dangerous on the roads as if they were they well over the limit for alcohol consumption. The “trip sheet” for March 5 to March 8 provided by Code 14 driver Donovan Leibrandt is a classic example.

Leaving Cape Town at 7 pm on a round trip via Port Elizabeth, he and his non-driving assistant covered 3 333 km and handled 27 deliveries in a period of 55 hours. His first rest break came after 24 hours.

In most cases, such rest or sleep breaks are taken in the truck, there being no properly equipped truck stops. Pressure to make deliveries on time also often means that drivers have to speed and, when fined, usually have this amount docked from their pay.

That drivers and their assistants are also responsible for loading and offloading the trucks, sometimes carrying individual items weighing 80kg or more is another regular complaint, along with overloading — “We are told to avoid the weighbridges,” one driver noted.

This sometimes means drivers being told to take little policed back roads, doing considerable damage both to the roads and the trucks. There is also the issue of dangerous goods, so-called “Hazchem” transport. Only drivers with hazardous goods certification are supposed to transport such material.

Leibrandt has this certification, but admits that many drivers transporting dangerous goods do not. However, traffic officials are often not aware of the nature of the goods being transported because the legally required “Hazchem” placards have been removed from the trucks.

“The trucking side is crazy,” says Duncan Ford, a Cape Town bus driver and president of the Transport and Omnibus Workers’ Union. He also points out that the only benefit the long distance coach drivers gained from the recently concluded pay and conditions negotiations was a R400 “standby allowance” for each trip.

Until the latest deal was struck, the two drivers undertaking the perhaps 16-hour journey between Johanneburg and Cape Town, would only be paid for the time “the foot is on the pedal”. The “resting” driver, usually relaxing on a back seat, was not considered to be “at work” and was not paid.

“But some of the drivers, for the love of money, do back to back trips,” admits Ford. While he sees this as a problem, he is not concerned that the “split shift” system still applies with local bus services. This means drivers driving for three hours in the morning, having a perhaps a six-hour break and then driving again for a further five hours.

“It was like that when I started 25 years ago and it is still like that,” says Ford. His main concern is that drivers coming to work, perhaps in a taxi, and who are injured in an accident, are not regarded as having a work related injury. “They are not covered,” he says.

This is one of the many complaints in an industry where employers complain that profit margins are being squeezed; that a 3% return is the best that can be hoped for. But the problem is compounded by rogue operators, labour brokers and the increasing move by companies to finance single owner-operating trucks that compete against one another.

However, according to Leibrandt, even in good companies with decent practices, there can still be managers who bend the rules in order to perhaps impress their superiors or to improve their personal bonus payments. Clearly, both government and the unions have fallen down in protecting and improving the conditions of the men — and the few women — in this vital distribution chain.