By Fred Kockott

Shady driving schools are extorting hundreds of thousands of rands from learner drivers who fear that they will not obtain a license unless they pay their instructors to bribe examiners.

"No matter how well you can drive, you won't get your driver's licence unless you pay what the instructors suggest," was the common refrain of recently licensed drivers interviewed by the Sunday Tribune this week.

All but one of the drivers interviewed confessed to paying bribes of R750 to R1 000 to ensure they got a licence.

"It's how it's done."

"It's the norm."

"If you don't (pay), you waste your money going for tests, again and again," they said.

Learner drivers interviewed at the Durban Institute of Technology (DIT) expressed resignation at having to pay what has become a commonly accepted "fee", over and above costs of driving lessons and registration for examination at Road Traffic Inspectorate (RTI) testing stations.

But are most road traffic inspectors in on the take?

The head of KwaZulu-Natal's RTI, John Schnell, does not believe so. He also disputes this week's department of transport statement that 50 percent of driving licences in South Africa are probably fraudulent or procured in an irregular manner.

"That's patently absurd. I don't know how anyone could give such a declaration credibility," said Schnell.

The statement was issued by the Chief Director of Land Transport Regulations, Wendy Watson, on Monday, sparking serious concerns about road safety. The department "has serious doubts about the driving abilities of a large percentage of South African drivers", she said.

Clarifying her statement, Watson said besides conversions of forged foreign driver's licences, and the by-passing of eye tests, a special investigations unit had established that examiners frequently solicited bribes while conducting examinations.

She said investigations had already resulted in the arrest and pending prosecution of 30 driving inspectors in several provinces, and were now being extended to "every testing station throughout the country".

Taking issue with Watson's comments, Schnell conceded that irregularities occurred at RTI testing stations, but said the level of corruption was impossible to quantify.

"But it's certainly more the exception than the rule," added Schnell.

He said he believed the problem was grossly exaggerated by crooked driving instructors cashing in on the "popular myth that all RTI inspectors are on the take".

"It's a hoary old story. It's become urban legend through pub talk. I bet the money extorted from learner drivers is hardly ever paid over to an examination officer," added Schnell.

But whether examiners are in on the take or not, the reality is that many recently licensed drivers appear to have been party to illegal payments.

Despite widely publicised announcements of ongoing investigations into the irregular awarding of driver's licences, several driving schools situated near DIT continue to advertise, at competitive prices, quick and easy methods to get learner's and driver's licences.

"Guaranteed learner's licence and driver's licence," reads a flyer of one operation near the Tech's Steve Biko campus.

The operator assured Sunday Tribune correspondent Sheetal Schneider that she could obtain a learner's licence with a guaranteed pass.

"You need two black and white ID photos and R290 once-off," said the operator. "We will take you with our transport to the NPA for your learner's."

An attendant at another driving agency told Roy Barford that an applicant would not even need to sit an examination to obtain a learner's licence.

"Tell your friend to bring me one grand (R1 000) and I will get him a learner's licence. I can do that next week," said the attendant.

When would he have to write the test? asked Barford.

"Oh no, he doesn't have to write the test. I just give it to him when he gives me the money."

It's that easy?

"Yes," laughed the attendant.

"And driver's (licence)?" asked Barford.

"No, you have to do that test, but you'll pass if you give me another R1 500. I will organise the date after your friend has got his learner's."

At the DIT City campus, students who recently enrolled for driving lessons said they had been advised by instructors that they would not pass their driver's test if they did not pay, in addition to the costs of driving lessons, a further R800 to R1 000 for the inspectors who conducted the driving tests.

Schnell said that this story not only highlighted how desperate people were to get driver's licences, but also an emerging attitude that money could buy anything.

"Why don't people just go through a reputable driving school, learn to drive properly and then go for a test? It's a vital life skill. Our examiners certainly would not fail a person who drives properly.

When people pay, all they do is set in motion the very cycle of corruption they are complaining about" said Schnell.

Schnell said people who knew of driving instructors who solicited bribes should call the Impimpa hotline 086 221 1010, so that such operators could be investigated and blacklisted. -

Additional reporting Samantha Moodley