Trailer owners vs renters: Supreme Court decides who’s liable for fines
PRETORIA - The Supreme Court of Appeal found itself having to answer the question of whether the National Road Traffic Act, in terms notices and fines for traffic violations, also relates to the owners of trailers.
Section 73 (1) of the National Road Traffic Act provides that where, in any prosecution relating to the driving of a vehicle on a public road, it is necessary to prove who was the driver of such vehicle, it shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that such a vehicle was driven by the owner thereof.
Section 73 (2) in turn, provides that whenever a vehicle is parked in contravention of the traffic rules, it shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that such vehicle was parked by the owner thereof.
But the court was confronted with the question as to whether the act included in its definition of vehicle also trailers.
The issue first came to the fore when companies which rented out trailers to customers across the country became fed-up as they received tickets for parking and traffic offences due to customers who broke the traffic laws.
They said they were held accountable, although it was the drivers of the vehicles which towed the trailers, which had committed these offences, as trailers could not drive themselves.
They said not only were they confronted with traffic violation tickets and summonses, but they often battled to renew their licences due to outstanding traffic violations caused by the drivers who towed their trailers.
They successfully asked the court to order that the interpretation of traffic offences under the National Road Traffic Act must be vehicles which could be driven and not trailers – thus the owners of trailers should not be fined.
The Transport Ministry, however, appealed this ruling and said the legislation should be interpreted as including trailers under the definition of vehicles.
According to the Transport Department, owners of trailers could tell the courts that they were not in violation of the traffic rules as they could prove who had hired their trailer at the time.
But the trailer companies said this was easier said than done. They, in any event, said as their trailers could not commit traffic violations as it was not propelled and could not move on its own, the Traffic Offences Act should only relate to the drivers of the vehicles towing the trailers.
The court was told that in many cases traffic cameras only pick up the back number plates of the trailers, as the latter often obscures the number plates of the vehicle towing it. Thus, they were saddled with most of the traffic violation notices.
In turning down the appeal by the Ministry of Transport, the Supreme Court said it went without saying that the section of the act in question could only apply to a vehicle that was capable of being driven and not applicable to a trailer.
“It is as well to remember that a ‘trailer’ is defined as a vehicle which is not self-propelled but rather designed or adapted to be drawn by a motor vehicle …Thus, it is self-evident that it is the controls of the vehicle drawing or towing the trailer that are manipulated by the driver of the towing vehicle whenever the trailer in tow is in motion.”
The trailer’s speed and direction is determined by that of the towing vehicle. Accordingly, in the event of any traffic violation being committed, it will be the driver of the towing vehicle who would be liable to be prosecuted,” the court concluded.