Laws of physics are unforgiving

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Gauteng Economic Development MEC Nkosiphendule Kolisile was a rarity among our ruling politicians in that he was respected by his party and the opposition alike.

He and two bodyguards died on Saturday when their vehicle collided head-on with a truck on the N6 in the vicinity of Reddersburg outside Bloemfontein in the Free State.

Investigations are now underway into exactly what happened and a full report is expected in six weeks.

Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane was in tears when she spoke to reporters in Johannesburg later that day.

"We were told the MEC's vehicle was making way for an ambulance, when they went into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. They died on the scene. The ambulance never stopped."

I can understand the Premier's anguish. Tragedy makes people react emotionally and the death of a promising competent leader is a tragedy for the ANC and the nation alike.

At the same time, my "this doesn't make sense" detector went off as I heard her words.

Firstly, if one is making way for an ambulance, one would generally pull off the road and not into the path of oncoming traffic.

Secondly, if an ambulance is driving with lights flashing, one presumes that the ambulance was carrying someone with a life-threatening emergency on board, and that the first responsibility of the paramedics would be to their patient – not to stop to render assistance at an accident.

No doubt the full story will emerge following the investigation and it would be inappropriate to speculate as to what actually went down.

Let us talk about speeding.

Speed limits for vehicles go back to 1832 when the UK Stage Carriage Act introduced the offence of endangering the safety of a passenger or person by "furious driving".

Of course there were no speedometers or speed traps back then.

It would take more than 60 years for someone to be convicted of speeding: Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent, in 1896 was fined 1 shilling plus costs for driving at 13 km/h.

In the event of a collision, the kinetic energy of the motor vehicle is proportionate to the square of the speed at impact.

What does this mean? If two vehicles have a head on collision each travelling at 40 km/h, the energy of the collision will be proportional to 80 x 80 (6400).

If each vehicle is travelling at 80 km/h, the energy will be proportional to 160 x 160 (25 600).

In other words, double the speed, and the impact is four times as deadly.

Cars today are significantly safer than they were, with airbags, crumple zones, and roll bars.

But when two vehicles collide head on each travelling at 100 km/h, there are unlikely to be survivors.

I am not for an instance suggesting that the MEC's driver was speeding at the time of the collision.

I am, however, very firmly of the opinion that official drivers from the VIP protection units consistently exceed posted speed limits.

I drive regularly on the M1 in Johannesburg between the Buccleuch interchange and the Sandton environs; which happens to be the route between the Johannesburg CBD and Pretoria.

Traffic on this road moves consistently at the 100 km/h speed limit whenever possible. Every so often, there will be flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror and a convoy of vehicles then blitzes past.

Now, understand that I have no problem with giving official vehicles right of way

I've no doubt that abuse takes place, but it is really stupid to allow the president of the country to be stuck in a traffic jam, so I give way contentedly.

But what VIP drivers appear to be unaware of is that their official status does not give them protection from the laws of physics.

If you do see one of them bearing down on you, best get out of the way.

They're an accident waiting to happen.