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Durban - As funeral plans for the 22 people killed in the Fields Hill horror crash last week get under way, it has emerged that provincial transport authorities rejected a task team’s report – compiled by its own senior staff members – that called for heavy-duty trucks to be banned on that part of the M13.
The report, submitted to Transport MEC Willies Mchunu in December 2011, was compiled by senior officials at the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport, the Road Traffic Inspectorate, local businesses and the former councillor for the Pinetown area, Warwick Chapman.
On Thursday 22 people died and scores were injured after an articulated truck that had apparently lost its brakes ploughed into five taxis and a car at the base of Fields Hill.
According to a reply to the task team, the recommendations were rejected by the KZN department’s senior manager, engineering services, in part because it would come at a cost to large retailers in the area, who have to use smaller trucks to stock their stores in the Highway area. The Daily News has a copy of both documents.
The report found that there had been a huge increase in traffic on the hill, with an average of 57 052 vehicles a day in 2001/2 rising to 66 905 in 2009/10. Heavy vehicles on the hill had risen from 1 980 in 2001/2 to 3 359 in 2009/10. Over the same period heavy vehicle accidents had risen five times from 5 to 25 a year over that period, showing a steady increase every year.
The report urged the MEC to use his authority to enforce a section of the KZN Provincial Road Act – as was done in Western Cape – that allows the provincial government to restrict usage of a road to specific categories of vehicles.
The 2011 report states that trucks should be using the “purpose built” N3 toll road as it reduced the risk of accidents because of its superior alignment, gradients and sight distances compared to Fields Hill, which had sharp bends and poor visibility.
The department of transport rejected the report, no commenting on sections of it, and disagreeing with the issues of safety.
“(The economic implications) would be considerable to business as goods would have to be either transferred from larger to smaller trucks if available…”, Walter Bennet, the department’s senior manager, engineering services, wrote in March 2012 in response to the task team’s report.
“Most large chains such as Woolworths, Checkers, Pick n Pay, etc use class 4 trucks for deliveries. Refrigeration trucks delivering fresh produce could also be a problem when coming from far afield, necessitating the swopping of delivery vehicle,” Bennet wrote. “The consumer ultimately will pay.”
However, Chapman believes there were solutions to the possible economic impact.
“There were options like allowing trucks to go far as the last bridge at Fields Hill with the further option of turning around and still accessing the broader economic area there. And if trucks needed to take one of the off-ramps onto Fields Hill they could get a special permit and get a police escort. But there was none of that; it (the report) was just dismissed outright,” Chapman said on Sunday.
“If they had listened to us then and implemented the recommendation, a very large truck with containers on it would not be on Fields Hill on Thursday night and the driver would not have to make a choice on how to arrest the vehicle.” Chapman said the report had clearly identified it was not only the gradient but also the sharpness of the corners at Fields Hill that posed a problem. The road was never designed for large trucks, he said.
“It is all good and well when the truck is operating fine but that is not the problem. The problem is when there is a crisis situation. There is no space on Fields Hill to build an arrestor bed,” he said. “As it stands the downhill section is two lanes only and recovery becomes a massive issue as there is just no space for an arrestor bed. What happened is totally unforgivable as we warned them about this.”
According to the report, truckers interviewed by the Road Traffic Inspectorate have said the reasons they use the M13 is to avoid the toll fee but also to avoid the weighbridge at Mariannhill.
“The cost in lives, damage to infrastructure and the economic impact of reduced productivity, although difficult to calculate, must far exceed any cost benefit of using the M13 instead of the safer, purpose built N3,” the report said.
Over a 10-hour period in each of three days in September 2010 a survey of heavy vehicle traffic showed that 226 to 347 heavy vehicles used the route, while on a Friday 620 trucks used the downhill route.
The report urged the provincial department to restrict trucks and also reduce the speed limit on Fields Hill from 80km/h to 60km/h.
It said the combination of a steep downhill gradient and a sharp curve on the road, the potential of fatigue of long distance drivers, as well as darkness and rain, made it a “dangerous situation on Fields Hill”.
“This is compounded by mechanical failure or load instability which often occurs when a heavy duty vehicle is subject to a sudden swerve or heavy braking. In summary, Fields Hill suffers from serious geometric design problems which makes it unsuitable in terms of current designs and standards.”
Kwanele Ncalane, spokesman for the department of transport, had not responded to queries by the time of publication.
DA caucus leader in eThekwini, Zwakele Mncwango, said the MEC should take responsibility for the crash because he had rejected the report: “We gave the MEC the report... but the response was arrogant. Some items he refused to comment on and others he said we failed to give evidence. The MEC can’t act suprised now. He should be honest and take responsibility.”
“It’s an issue of will, not of budget. If they can’t fund another road then give trucks special rates at the toll. It can’t be an issue if it saves lives.”
The Deputy Speaker of the KZN Legislature, Mtholephi Mthimkhulu, said on Sunday that calls by the DA for Mchunu to resign left the Office of the Speaker appalled “at the DA’s attempt to turn a terrible tragedy in which so many people have lost their lives into a political football”. “We believe the DA is being so insensitive and irresponsible simply because the majority of the people who died in this accident were black and it just shows the contempt with which they treat black people,” he said.