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Durban - The Department of Transport is proposing a major shake-up of the country’s traffic laws in a last-ditch attempt to arrest the spiralling carnage on the roads that is costing the economy more than R300 billion a year.
Among a raft of new laws on the table is one reducing the legal alcohol content limit to 0.05 percent for drivers, another providing a two-year probation period for first-time driving licence applicants, 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 government’s initiative, the proof would be in the implementation.
“Changing legislation is only worth the paper it is written on,” Petro Kruger of the Road Safety Foundation said recently.
“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,” Kruger said.
“The challenge is to get effective law enforcement out there and to instil in our drivers that it is socially unacceptable to drink and drive.”
Tiyani Rikhotso, spokesman for the Department of Transport, said the proposals were still in their infancy and needed to be put to Parliament under an amendment to the National Road Traffic Act before being passed into law.
“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 Transport Department statistics, about 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 every year.
Transport Minister Dipuo Peters, during a road safety summit recently, said her department planned to spend R8.7bn on remedial work on five trouble spots in each province over the coming year.
Among the proposed changes to the Road Traffic Act would be periodic vehicle testing for all cars, 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, plus operating for 24 hours.
Rikhotso said at smaller municipalities, traffic officers worked office hours and were not available after 5pm.
He said research showed that most fatal crashes occurred between midnight and 6am.
He said criticism that the government was only reacting in the wake of the Fields Hill tragedy, was not true.
“It does not matter if 50 people die or one person dies,” he said.
“Most of these crashes can be avoided,” he said.
Wendy Watson, who co-founded Arrive Alive and now works as a road safety consultant throughout Africa, said if the government was serious about reducing the carnage, it should come up with more radical legislation that would include retesting every driver.
“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.
“We have to take drastic measures. People are dying,” she said.