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The clamour to get the heavies off Fields Hill grows as it was revealed that thousands of heavily loaded trucks a month could be using the dangerous route to avoid paying toll fees at the Mariannhill plaza.
And there are calls for KwaZulu-Natal Transport MEC Willies Mchunu to resign in the wake of the horror smash that claimed 22 lives when a runaway truck careered down the tricky route and through an intersection, flattening five taxis and killing most of the occupants immediately.
Last week the Sunday Tribune established that 30 000 trucks, about 30 percent of the total travelling between Joburg and Durban every month, dodge the Mariannhill toll.
Statistics from the N3 Toll Concession and the South African National Roads Agency show that between May and July, 314 127 heavy vehicles passed through the Mooi River toll plaza, with only 208 023 passing through the Mariannhill plaza during the same period. Many of the discrepancy of more than 100 000 may have used the M13 and Fields Hill as a route into Durban.
The call for Mchunu’s head comes in the same week as another tragic accident, near KwaNongoma, in which 10 Zulu maidens returning from the annual Reed Dance were killed when their bus overturned.
In both instances, the drivers were 23 years old and the vehicles they were driving allegedly poorly maintained.
Last week, the Sunday Tribune established from city records that a total of 114 people have been killed in accidents on the M13 in the last seven years. More than half of these fatalities occurred on Fields Hill.
Thursday’s accident on Fields Hill is one of the bloodiest in the city’s history and has made international news. It comes after a concerted campaign to ban trucks from the hill has been ignored.
Last year a Department of Transport report on Fields Hill turned down a proposal to have it restricted to light vehicles only, saying evidence did not support the claims that trucks posed a risk.
DA Kloof ward councillor Rick Crouch said it was alarming that a possible 30 000 trucks a month were using Fields Hill. He said drivers simply wanted to avoid paying tolls and going over the weighbridge.
When there was an accident, the “drivers and owners blame each other”, Crouch said.
“MEC Willies Mchunu’s shock and outrage regarding the accident on Fields Hill is disingenuous. We’ve been telling him and his department in official meetings that this exact thing would happen.”
Crouch said Mchunu should resign. “He is answerable. In this country, we practise tombstone politics. It takes the death of people to inspire action and change.
“Because he won’t resign, he should immediately pass a ban for heavy goods trucks on the M13. He has the power to do so,” Crouch said.
DA Pinetown ward councillor Tim Brauteseth said the crash should be a rallying point in the battle to have trucks banned on the M13.
“This accident could have been avoided. The road is not designed for that type of traffic, considering the gradients and turns. Plain and simple, the truck should not have been there,” he said.
“The MEC has the power to change the classification of a road. His failure to act is obvious.”
Richard Benson, of the Road Safety Action Campaign, said speed and a lack of enforcement overall constituted a deadly cocktail.
“This road cannot accommodate that volume of trucks. There should be a ban, except for trucks with specific delivery notes and light trucks under five tons,” he said.
National Transport Minister Dipuo Peters said an array of road traffic laws to arrest the scourge of road accidents were in the works.
She said her government and department would urgently look at possibly restricting young and inexperienced drivers from operating heavy-duty vehicles.
Despite the prolific punting of the state and its plans, she was unable to provide a time frame for real action.
“I have no time frames for now, but in a week’s time I have requested to be furnished with a report of what needs to be urgently done,” she said.
“Take, for example, Avis. They will not hire out a car to you when you are under the age of 25 or your licence is fairly new.
“Now you hear that the operator of such a gigantic truck was 23. Clearly, there’s something to be looked at there.”
However, the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union said that, if a person was of the legal age of labour and had the qualifications and documentation to work, they should be able to work, and even operate trucks.
“If you are at a legal working age as per labour laws, you have passed all licences and possess legally issued permits, you qualify.”
Peters said that in the legislation they would look at ways to determine, not only age, but also body size, vehicle size and weight, as well as distances travelled by a truck.
The driver, a 23-year-old Malawian national, presented himself to officers who arrived at the scene. He faces charges of culpable homicide and reckless and negligent driving.
The Sunday Tribune can reveal that the truck’s licence disc and certificate of roadworthiness had expired.
Brake failure has been cited as the reason why the young driver was unable to stop from ploughing into five fully laden minibus taxis and a car while they crossed the busy junction, and sources close to the investigation said the vehicle’s brakes were “non-existent”.
The source said that an examination of the brakes on the vehicle revealed that they were badly worn.
A well-placed source, who would not be named, said that assessing the exact speed at which the truck smashed into the cars was nearly impossible. However, it was within reason to estimate that it was travelling at more than 100km/h.
Experts asked why the driver failed to engage a low gear at the top of the hill as he was supposed to, saying this would have stopped the truck from careering out of control.
Theasen Pillay, an attorney representing the owner, Gregory Govender of Phoenix, declined to answer questions sent by the Sunday Tribune.
“The gravity of the loss warrants a meticulous and exhaustive inquiry, which has already commenced.
“Justice will not be done if there are spontaneous claims and counterclaims,” he said.
Pillay would not say when the truck was last serviced and the brakes replaced, or how long the driver had been at the helm of heavy trucks.
“Fault and/or any criminal liability can only be determined on a careful evaluation of all the evidence.
“Public interest does warrant a full disclosure, but this can only follow after the due process of the investigations has been completed,” he said.
Durban transport expert Kevin Martin called for a forensic report, saying that, if the truck had been badly maintained, authorities should “throw the book” at the owner. – Additional reporting by Nathi Oliphant. - Sunday Tribune