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Durban - Armed Road Traffic Inspectorate officers have been stopping motorists in the city - not for traffic transgressions, but so that workers from a private survey company could field a range of personal questions.
Surprised drivers were asked where they were travelling to and from, the purpose of the trip, how frequently they used the road, and even what their monthly household income was.
The use of armed RTI officers has been slammed by experts as an abuse of state resources, and the survey itself described as problematic.
And mystery surrounds the purpose of the survey, raising the spectre of more toll roads.
Evidently the research was commissioned by the South African National Roads Agency Limited but, but despite numerous queries, it had not responded by this morning.
The survey is being conducted by Mikros Traffic Monitoring KwaZulu-Natal, a traffic data collection company.
While the RTI said it was commissioned by the Road Traffic Management Corporation, Mikros director, Basil Enoch, said on Wednesday Mikros had been hired by Sanral, which had provided the questions.
“We collect traffic data for various reasons,” he said, “mostly for upgrading infrastructure, but I don’t know what this one is for.”
Asked whether it was regular practice to pull over drivers for surveys, Enoch said it was not unusual and done quite often.
“It’s illegal for a private company to pull motorists over which is why RTI assists us. It is legal for RTI to pull motorists over.”
He said they could not force motorists to answer questions, and ensured staff were as polite as possible.
The surveys are being conducted throughout eThekwini and have already been done on Chatsworth’s Higginson Highway, Nandi Drive in Mt Edgecombe and elsewhere.
Enoch said there were more interviews still to be done, but they would be completed soon.
Hundreds of drivers were flagged down by RTI officers near the N2/M7 interchange on Tuesday.
Acting on a tip-off, the Daily News team drove there and observed motorists being questioned by five civilians wearing reflective vests. They also recorded the number of occupants in the vehicles.
About 20 others were stationed behind the traffic lights and under the bridge, counting passing cars by category and type. The survey started at 6am and ended at 6pm.
RTI spokeswoman Zinhle Mngomezulu said the survey was commissioned by the RTMC, which had requested the officers to stop vehicles.
Asked if it was not an abuse of state resources, she said the officers were directed to assist the people doing the survey.
“They are not being abused, not at all, but about the survey ask the RTMC. We work together, they are our mother body, we have to assist them,” she said.
Mngomezulu said officers often helped motorists with punctures, and asked if that was abuse too, before adding, “we help when available”.
OPPOSED TO FURTHER TOLLING
The KwaZulu-Natal department of transport did not respond to questions about the purpose of the research and the presence of the traffic police - but when asked if it was related to tolling, spokesman Kwanele Ncalane said the province was opposed to further tolling.
He said there had been no formal indication that additional tolls were being considered in KZN, apart from the proposed e-tolling of existing tolls such as at the Mariannhill plaza.
“Consultation is needed if there is to be an idea to roll out tolls in the province,” he said.
“If there is an issue with regards to tolls, you need to ask Sanral. “
“We maintain that we think we are the most tolled province, and additional tolls would affect KZN badly.”
One of the drivers pulled over for the survey on Tuesday said he had initially assumed it was a routine check for valid licences.
Giordano Stolley explained: “I was heading to work and turned onto the N2 onramp northbound towards Spaghetti Junction.
“As I went up the onramp they were pulling cars off on to the right hand side, which was bizarre.”
Stolley said he was approached by a man wearing a vest who said they were doing a survey.
He did not specify where they were from or what the survey was for.
“There were about five or six questions asking where I was going, how often I travel but the last question I found very, very strange.
“They asked what my monthly income was. I refused to answer that.”
Stolley said he assumed this was to determine how much to charge motorists for potential tolling.
“The man accepted that I wasn’t going to answer that.”
He said the man questioning him was very polite and the survey quick, but at no point did they check his driving licence or car disc.
“I’m not sure if it was the RTI or Sanral, but I think they were trying to find out what they can or can’t charge,” he said.
Policing expert Dr Jean Steyn said the RTI had no right to stop vehicles for interviews.
“Just because you are a policeman wearing uniform does not mean you can just stop members of the public; there must be a reasonable ground or suspicion of a crime to be stopped,” said Steyn, a policing and criminology lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“This is a misuse of power. Who authorised this, is it a judge, a magistrate? I would never accept that. People stop because they respect authority, but reality is you must have permission to conduct any roadblock,” he said. “This is not ethical, it is an abuse of power.”
Steyn said he was disappointed and shocked, adding that the reliability of the survey should be questioned as well.
“Have they followed protocol? Why use state resources when they could be doing something useful with them?
‘When we send students to the police, they are very clear, ‘you will not misuse police resources, time or influence’, but this is an absolute contradiction to those conditions,” he said.
Retired professor and ethics expert Graham Lindegger said it was “completely unacceptable” to survey people without disclosing what the research would be used for.
“There are strict guidelines.” he said. “Informed consent is needed for the person to understand what is being asked and for them to be free to participate or walk away. It is very unethical to coerce or trick or put a person in a situation where it is hard to refuse.”
Lindegger said it was a violation of fundamental research ethics and said although the survey might be in the public interest, people needed to be “enabled” to be comfortable, and not feel like they were being forced to take part.
“People are on a journey and are being forced to abort that journey for research, that is completely unacceptable. They must explain to motorists that we are doing this research to find out if people are happy about the traffic flow, road surface, etc…
“You need to equip people with the fundamentals of the research so they are comfortable.”