The Transport Department is proposing a major shake-up of the country’s traffic laws in a last-ditch attempt to arrest the carnage on the roads that is costing the economy R300 billion a year.
Among a raft of new laws on the table is one reducing the legal alcohol content limit to 0.02 percent for drivers, another providing a two-year probation period for first-time applicants of driving licences, reducing the speed limit in built-up areas, and declaring traffic law enforcement an essential service.
However, road safety experts are taking a wait-and-see approach, saying while they welcomed the initiative, the proof would be in the implementation.
“Changing legislation is only worth the paper it is written on,” said Petro Kruger of the Road Safety Foundation.
“Such measures will only be effective if the legislation is enforced. In terms of the reduction of alcohol limit, we already have one of the lowest limits in the world. Again, where we are lacking is the enforcement of those laws,” she said. “I have been driving for more than 20 years and I have not been stopped once and asked to do a breathalyser. The challenge is to get effective law enforcement out there and instil in our drivers that it is socially unacceptable to drink and drive. Unless we do that, things are not going to change.”
Department spokesman Tiyani Rikhotso said the proposals were in their infancy and needed to be put forward to Parliament under an amendment to the National Road Traffic Act before being passed as law.
NO SILVER BULLET
He agreed with the concerns of road safety experts that good laws needed to be enforced to be effective, saying there was “no silver bullet” to the problem.
“We are not saying this is going to end the road carnage overnight. It will be a gradual process,” he said. “Right now we are focusing on the reduction of alcohol for drivers and the two-year probationary period for learner drivers, as that is going to have the biggest impact.
“We would like to get to a stage where it will be totally illegal to get behind the wheel of a car if one has had a drink, but because we are working in a constitutional framework, we need to take it one step at a time.”
According to government statistics, 40 people are killed on South African roads every day, costing the economy R306bn annually. The Road Accident Fund pays out R15bn to victims of road accidents annually.
At a recent road safety summit, Transport Minister Dipuo Peters said her department planned to spend R8.7bn on remedial work on five troublespots in each province over the next year.
MORE VEHICLE TESTING
Among the proposed changes to the law would be periodic testing for all vehicles, tighter legislation for child safety in vehicles, reducing the speed limit in built-up areas to 40km/h, and traffic law enforcement being declared an essential service and a 24-hour operation.
Rikhotso said that at smaller municipalities, traffic officers worked office hours and were not available after 5pm.
He noted that most fatal crashes occurred between midnight and 6am.
“There have to be 24-hour shifts for traffic officers. There is evidence that the visibility of officers deters people from driving badly,” he said.
Rikhotso said criticism that the government was reacting in the wake of the Field’s Hill tragedy was untrue.
“It does not matter if 50 people die or one person dies. No one should die,” he said. “Most of these crashes can be avoided. We are moving away from calling them accidents, and are calling them crashes. Accidents are mistakes, and any person who gets in their car when they are drunk and smashes into someone has not been in an accident,” he said.
Wendy Watson, who co-founded Arrive Alive and now works as a road safety consultant throughout Africa, said that if the government was serious about reducing the carnage on the roads, it should come up with more radical legislation that would include having every driver on the road retested.
“Until that is done we will not be making much progress,” she added.
“What is critical to reducing crashes is human behaviour. We need to teach people that even though the speed limit is 120km/h on the freeway, when it is raining they need to slow down and adjust their speed. We also need to change the laws regarding carrying passengers on the back of bakkies. We cannot treat people like garden equipment,” Watson said.
“When I was in charge of road safety regulation, I was told it would affect the economy. Are people saying the R300bn is not affecting the economy?” -Daily News