Drunk driving is not being taken seriously, say road safety and anti-drunk-driving organisations.
They were reacting to reports that police had allegedly been tampering with dockets in exchange for cash, resulting in low convictions for drunk-driving arrests.
“This is absolutely shocking,” said Caro Smit of South Africans Against Drunk Driving in response to a Sunday Times report that of the 1 481 arrests in 2012 by the Durban Central police station for drunk-driving, only 111 had resulted in convictions.
It was also reported that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) was investigating allegations of corruption at the police station in about 200 drunk-driving cases.
Police and traffic officers from different parts of South Africa were quoted anonymously admitting that corruption was the cause of low conviction rates for drunk driving and claiming blood samples were tampered with by being left in a car boot on a hot day or put in a microwave oven.
These samples, therefore, could not be analysed.
According to the Road Traffic Inspectorate, 130 drunk-driving arrests were made in KwaZulu-Natal during the festive season.
Last month about 200 people were arrested during a joint operation by metro police and the SAPS targeting drunk drivers.
Yesterday metro police spokesman Eugene Msomi did not have updated figures that would include arrests from New Year’s Eve roadblocks.
Smit said: “Annually, there are 12 000 deaths due to drunk driving. If police treat this as a serious crime, there would be a decrease in the death rate. People don’t seem to understand the effect of drunk driving.”
She felt that when it came to prosecution, there was too much support for the drunk driver, while the victims were forgotten.
“The Department of Justice is to blame by not handing down appropriate sentences. We’re really losing the battle,” said Smit, who urged victims of drunk drivers to contact her organisation for support.
She suggested that KZN should adopt a similar approach to that of the Western Cape, whose traffic officers work 24 hours a day.
“This reduced the province’s road fatalities by 30 percent. I have huge sympathy for our police officers. There are so many serious crimes to keep track of. This is why we need our traffic officers to work 24 hours, so that we are not so reliant on police officers.”
Howard Dembovsky of Justice Project SA, an NGO involved in road safety education and the prevention and addressing of corruption and abuse of power in law enforcement, said corruption and the low conviction rate had been an ongoing problem.
“At a recent road safety summit it was reported that Johannesburg had a 7 percent conviction rate for drunk driving. I don’t think traffic officers are to blame. Once a person has been arrested and taken to a police station it is out of the traffic officer’s hands. One needs to look at how a police station is equipped. There are large numbers that do not have refrigerators to keep the blood samples,” he said.
The NGO was involved in a sting operation in 2010, which led to the arrest of a Gauteng police officer.
“The going rate for corruption is about R3 000. This is what the officer requested for squashing a drunk-driving charge. We need to start getting serious about this and how to deal with offenders,” Dembovsky said.
He felt the speedier the conviction, the less the chance of corruption. He said a higher conviction rate would act as a deterrent against driving while under the influence of alcohol.
DA police spokeswoman Dianne Kohler Barnard said she intended taking up the matter with Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.
“I will ask him what he intends doing about this and how it came about,” she said.
“It’s appalling. It seems that bribery is the name of the game. This is a huge indictment on the SAPS. If they cannot manage dealing with drunk driving, how would they still deal with murders and rapes?
“This is a clear indication that there is a massive problem,” Kohler Barnard said.
She also referred to the recent nationwide police audit, saying numerous police officers found to have criminal records were still employed.
“If they are still kept in the police service, this entrenches corruption,” she said.
KZN police commissioner Lieutenant General Mmamonnye Ngobeni confirmed yesterday that Ipid was investigating. She applauded it and felt it should be allowed to complete its investigation.
“I am a little disappointed that a police officer has been named in this report. I am aware of a few cases involving officers being charged with defeating the ends of justice and two cases of corruption. We will monitor these cases and take appropriate action,” the provincial commissioner said.