Road carnage? Here’s how to fix it

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

If two minibus taxis each travelling at 60 kilometres per hour in opposite directions have a head-on collision at the top of a blind rise after one of the drivers has chosen to overtake a stream of vehicles behind a slow-moving truck, how many passengers can we expect to survive the crash?

I ask this because of the 16 major fatal crashes from 1st through 27th December 2011, 13 were head-on collisions. Most of these deaths involved public transport vehicles, specifically minibus taxis.

And that’s why the speed limit is so irrelevant in discussing the road death carnage. If two minibus taxis have a head on collision at 60 km/h, it’s exactly the same as one minibus taxi driving into a brick wall at 120 km/h.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that in a contest between passengers protected by a thin barrier of sheet metal and a glass windscreen on the one side and the brick wall on the other side, the brick wall is going to win every time.

Minibus taxis are the root cause of our road deaths. Minibus taxis are the root cause of our deaths. Minibus taxis are the root cause of our road deaths. Say it to yourself over and over again because our Minister of Transport, the Honourable Joel Sibusiso Ndebele, is unlikely to do so before the Second Coming.

Neither are his colleagues in cabinet likely to admit as much because they all suffer from a particular type of cowardice: they are afraid of the taxi industry.

Why do I say this? Well, the law of the land says all occupants of vehicles need to be wearing seatbelts. When last did you hear of a minibus taxi being pulled over for passengers not wearing seatbelts?

When last did you see a minibus taxi with functional seatbelts?

Minister: Here’s the physics of your failure to enforce this simple law. When a taxi capsizes or rolls, each passenger without a seatbelt becomes a projectile. Think of it as having a dozen objects each weighing at least 60 kilograms slamming into each other over and over again.

Can you hear those ribs cracking? Can you hear those necks breaking? That’s physics. Morgan Tsvangirai now knows this. His wife Susan died because she was not wearing her seatbelt when their official vehicle capsized.

But the lack of seatbelts are simply a visible display of the fact that taxi drivers know that they are above the law. So they speed through suburbs as shortcuts, (making it impossible for kids to play safely on the streets.) They drive in the emergency lanes. They overtake on blind rises. And every otherwise law-abiding motorist sees the taxis getting away with breaking the law and eventually out of sheer frustration does the same thing.

Albert Einstein once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Minister: you have failed, you have failed miserably in your close to three years in office to make even a dent in the road death toll.

And your response to every death is to parrot the same worn platitudes over and over again.

How many times are you going to threaten to lock up drivers? How many investigations are you going to launch into reasons for crashes? How many harsher punishments are you going to call for? Because in spite of the “zero tolerance” policy instituted in KZN during your tenure, the death toll in the province remains unaffected.

So let me tell you how to start fixing the problem. Make it a law that every minibus taxi be fitted with telematics and tracking devices which measure driving behaviour in real time.

These systems measure “harsh braking, acceleration, cornering, all of which increase the risk of loss of control of a vehicle”. (I’m quoting from the website of a well-known financial service company.) These systems also allow one to monitor when a vehicle enters a no-go area.

The subscription cost is in the region of a few hundred rand per month – taxi drivers earn that much in one morning. Your department doesn’t have to do the work: the tracking company will send you reports on every taxi driving dangerously, and your traffic officers will be able to immediately pinpoint the location of the miscreant on the internet, swoop, impound the taxi, and charge the offender with attempted murder.

So minister, what are you waiting for?