The South African Road Safety Issue

While roads in the Cape generally seem safe enough when you’re bumbling along them, every now and then you do get an eye-opener as to just how dangerous they really are.


The other day, for example, we witnessed the upsetting sight of a hanging body being slowly cut out of the mangled wreckage of a car, which appeared to have flipped and steamed into the central reservation.


And everyone you meet seems to have a tale to tell of some gruesome incident from which there was no coming back.


I guess the thing is that you can get lulled into a false sense of security though because, on the face of it, South African roads are relatively easy to negotiate.


On the one hand, their lanes are bigger and wider to drive on and their parking spaces are roomier and easier to get into, presumably because there’s simply more land to play with.


On the other, drivers, in the Cape anyway, are generally less aggressive and more polite than their UK counterparts, although that can’t necessarily be said of large cities such as Johannesburg, of course.


In fact, rather than risk antagonising anyone, considerate Cape drivers even show you the courtesy of moving over onto the hard shoulder of single carriageways to let you pass if you’re going faster than they are.


Oh yes – and people drive on the left-hand side of the road, which makes it a doddle for the Brits amongst us.


The only downside, if you’re not used to them, is the US-style stop junctions. These involve an element of trust in that the first person to arrive at one has the right of way over the others.


Worrying statistics


Although you might thing that such a system would lead to abject chaos, it actually works fairly well – although inevitably some drivers are more observant of the niceties than others. So you need to keep an eye out.


The same applies to roundabouts, or ‘circles’ as they’re known here. While some drivers do undoubtedly follow the rules and give way to the right, a goodly number use them in the same way as stop junctions. So again, eyes need to be everywhere.


But that doesn’t necessarily explain the worrying figures put out by the International Transport Forum in its latest Road Safety Annual Report. It indicated that South Africa comes at the bottom of a list of 36 admittedly mostly developed nations in terms of fatalities.


Not the cheeriest of news for nervous drivers such as myself, it must be said.


But in 2011, the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants stood at a massive 27.6 compared with a mere 3.1 in the UK and 10.4 in the US. According to the latest Road Traffic Management Association’s report this means that the number of people killed each year on the country’s roads totals about 13,800.


The figure is, in fact, only just shy of South Africa’s notorious 15,900 per annum murder rate, which is one of the highest in the world outside of war zones. As a result, road accidents cost the economy an estimated R307 billion (£19 billion) each year in everything from cleaning up the mess to lost productivity.


But I can’t imagine things that things are helped much by the fact that there’s no MOT-equivalent in South Africa to ensure a basic level of vehicle safety. Or that only about 30% of drivers have purchased any form of insurance.


The number of minibus taxis that are full to overflowing and weave across lanes way above their 100km per hour speed limit aren’t likely to improve the situation much either.


Unsurprisingly for those of us living here, however, it turns out that just over a third of all fatalities are pedestrians, with school children under the age of 15 years being particularly at risk.


Drive down any motorway or dual carriageway on your way past the vast townships of the Cape Flats, for example, and you’ll have the life terrified out of you by people running across them, dodging cars as they go.


Roadside entrepreneurs


I’m guessing that this is due to the noticeably inadequate provision of things like footbridges, which means there’s probably no other way to cross unless you want to go miles out of your way. The same goes for the lack of pedestrian-operated traffic lights and zebra crossings in more rural areas too.


But my Beloved saw the distressing upshot of such activity on the way into Cape Town only the other day. Not something that you’d wish on anyone, but there are roadside crosses and flowers aplenty that tell a similar story.


Another hair-raising sight is that of people wobbling their way along roadsides and even through lanes of traffic after a bellyful of booze or lungful of tik (crystal meth) in the difficult-to-see twilight or darkness.


Although you don’t see it every time you go out, it’s enough to give you heart failure when you do – you certainly need nerves of steel and eyes everywhere in such circumstances as the possible consequences don’t bear thinking about.


But despite all of this, roads aren’t just agents of death and destruction in South Africa. They’re also channels of entrepreneurship.


As a result, a familiar roadside sight is that of people sticking a finger out at passing cars. Although to the unpractised eye, it may look like they’re trying to hitch a lift, in reality they’re letting you know that they’re available for work.


But even more common are the road-hawkers. At just about every big junction you stop at and no matter how inclement the weather, you’ll come across someone trying to sell you something. Everything, in fact, from avocados and tennis balls to sunglasses and Zulu chieftain headgear.


If you’re interested, all you have to do is wind your window down, negotiate a little and it’s yours – although make sure you have the right amount to hand as most won’t give change.


If you’re not, just shake your head and they’ll move on. And there’s nothing particularly dangerous about that.


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