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Recipe to save lives

Jan 02 2013 09:59 * Mandi Smallhorne

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FORTY-two deaths a day – that’s what we averaged from December 1-23 2012, according to the Road Traffic Management Corporation. (Meanwhile, in Australia fewer than 20 people had died in the same period.)

A few years ago, a physiotherapist I interviewed on rehabilitation guesstimated that for every fatality on our roads, 10 or more people are injured severely enough to need time off work, ongoing medical treatment and probably rehabilitation (which means rather more than the six-odd sessions of physio permitted annually in your standard medical scheme).

In a non-holiday month, we have upwards of 35 deaths on the roads daily. Do the maths, and you’ll find that more than 125 000 people annually have their lives turned upside down by a vehicle accident.

There’s the cost of panel-beating a car – yes, I know there’s insurance, but what’s your excess? It can run into many thousands. Time off work translates into costs for your employer.

Private medical care is never fully covered – you’ll have to contribute a few thousand for scans, anaesthetists, medication and additional physiotherapy.

And finally, for many victims of motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) there are long-term consequences. Some are evident, such as the loss of a limb. Some aren’t so easy to spot, but they change lives forever.

I know someone whose spouse sustained a head injury in an MVA. His personality changed as a result – and so did their marriage. A neuropsychologist told me that this is a very common outcome for head-injured patients – if you bash your forehead, some very sensitive brain material can be damaged.

The level of horror on our roads is simply not tenable, in economic and personal terms. How do we get from this situation to a situation that’s more like Australia’s?

Every year we have blitzes in December and loud public awareness campaigns, but the evidence is clear: they don’t work.  By December 23, we were already more than 15% up on last year’s figures.

Year-round, hands-on, 24/7 enforcement and policing of ALL road traffic offences is, I believe, the answer. The focus currently – and for quite some time – has been on speed.

Howard Dembovsky of Justice Project SA says, for example, that in 2009, 98.94% of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department’s enforcement was in the form of camera speeding fines – a picture that has only got worse in the intervening years.

Now speed does kill – speed that’s inappropriate for the circumstances. But other offences are just as dangerous: an unroadworthy vehicle sticking closely to the speed limit is still a danger to its occupants and other road users.

A car changing lanes recklessly, going through red robots or overtaking on a blind rise is just as likely to kill and injure people (11 of the 18 major vehicle accidents recorded between December 1 and 23 were head-on collisions.)

Why do people obey the rules of the road in countries like Germany and Australia? It’s not because they’re better people, it’s because they’ve learnt their lesson: do something wrong on the roads, and you will get caught.

South Africans with friends in the UK will know how terrified they are of getting caught drunk-driving – they might lose their licence.

But to get from here to there, we also have to tackle something very difficult: changing the culture in the traffic police.

At present, it seems that enforcement is focused on two things: speed fines that garner massive amounts of cash for the traffic authorities and gathering nice illicit incomes for the cops themselves.

Yes, I do know that there are many traffic cops who are decent and honest, but bribery has become so commonplace it’s a way of life, certainly in Joburg.

My husband was in hospital recently and heard two medical personnel talking casually about driving over the limit and getting stopped. “We had to pay the cop R1 000,” said one, as though this was just part of the cost of living.

It’s all very well to tell motorists they’re to blame for corruption, too. Of course we are; if motorists didn’t fork out, there’d be no bribery, and that’ s why I for one refuse to rise to the bait.

But we are also afraid of the traffic police – we have heard too many stories of people wrongfully abused, assaulted, arrested. To be honest, as a woman I am not 100% sure I would not pay a bribe if I was stopped and solicited when driving alone at night. My fear might easily overwhelm my principles.

Somehow, we have to inculcate in law enforcement (traffic and police officers) the idea that they are there indeed to "protect and serve". We need to root out bribery by coming down heavily on it; we need to make examples of cops of any kind who abuse their positions of power and fill normal citizens with fear.

So: shift from the focus on speed and stringently police all moving violations; stamp out corruption; create a culture of partnership with the driving public.

A simple recipe which I believe would save lives, money and energy. Does anyone have anything to add?

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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mandi smallhorne  |  traffic  |  road deaths
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