The open road
South African Decembers evoke thoughts about long walks on the beach, watching Protea test match cricket on the couch, and reading about the carnage on our roads. This year was no exception: 1465 people died on South African roads from 1 December 2012 to 8 January 2013 in 1221 fatal accidents. Several thousands more were injured in these crashes. These deaths are not only tragic for family and friends; they carry a heavy burden for the South African taxpayer. According to Tiyani Rikhotso, spokesperson for the Department of Transport, road accidents cost the government R3.9 billion a year, while in addition the Road Accident Fund had to pay out R12.5 billion in claims for the 2011/2012 financial year. But the lost productivity, higher insurance fees and other costs to the South African economy will be much higher; estimates vary between R50 billion and R157 billion annually.

So what to do? A recent Business Day editorial calls for “a holistic plan of action that addresses the actual causes of road deaths”:

Various responsible parties need to ensure that our roads are in good condition, that painted lines are visible and that signage is intact and legible. Given that the AA estimates that as many as 50% of all South African drivers’ licences are fake or obtained fraudulently, corruption at licensing centres needs to be addressed. And, given the condition of some vehicles on our roads, so does corruption at testing stations.
Policing strategy, currently focused on speed-trapping and roadblocks, needs to change. The biggest killer in accidents is head-on collisions, so it is clear that the crossing of solid white lines needs to be policed, as does tailgating, failing to indicate, overtaking on the inside and myriad other perfectly sensible laws that are routinely, and fatally, ignored. This can be achieved only by getting many officers out from behind their speed guns and into their patrol cars.

Police forces themselves need to change. If a drunk driver is able to carry on his or her journey after offering a corrupt officer a bribe, people will die. Given that as many as 40% of those killed on the roads are pedestrians, laws preventing walking on freeways need to be enforced. Speed traps cannot do this. Infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, such as footbridges and cycle lanes, is urgently needed.

Calls for drastic action increased after Burry Stander, South African Olympian and world champion mountain biker, died on 3 January after he was hit by a taxi on his way home after training. Most commentators lamented the moral decline that results in absolute lawlessness on South Africa’s roads. News24 columnist David Moseley wrote in his column ‘We all killed Burry Stander’: “Our arrogance, egos, impatience, ill manners and total disregard for the lives of others on the road all contributed to Stander’s death as much as the man sitting at the wheel of the car that killed him.” His solution? “Look in the mirror”.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Blaming road deaths on the average driver’s lack of good intentions is like blaming the financial crisis on the average banker’s greed. Greed did not cause the financial crisis (people are always greedy), but the wrong incentives did. If we want to solve the road carnage problem, we need to make more fundamental changes.

Firstly, we need structural changes to our transport network. Because of the way our cities have developed – due to our past segregation policies but also because of relatively few spatial constraints – cars are the predominant mode of transport in urban areas. While passenger trains do carry thousands of daily commuters, private cars, buses and taxis are still far more popular. These modes of transport are even more popular across long distances; for those who cannot afford to fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the bus, taxi or private car is the most obvious alternative. Passenger trains like the Shosholoza Meyl dwindle in significance to the number of travellers using the roads. Most importantly, the decline of rail freight services during the 1990s and 2000s caused a massive increase in road freight. Travel on the N1 from Cape Town to Bloemfontein during the off-season and you might count more trucks and lorries than passenger vehicles. These trucks are often slow and difficult to overtake. On single lane roads, they block faster traffic, leading to frustration, risk-taking and, ultimately, fatal collisions.

The first solution to reduce road accidents should involve reducing the freight transport on our national highways. Transnet, the rail freight carrier, has improved their services over the last few years and will hopefully continue to make inroads into the road freight industry. Our physical infrastructure is good; we need to improve the quality of infrastructure (as I argued a few years ago). This means improving the reliability and frequency of rail services to boost competition with road freight. But road freight has also matured into a multi-billion rand industry; don’t expect them to play along to any plans to reduce road freight transport.

The second solution should involve reducing the volume of passenger road traffic. Even though there is only a weak correlation between the number of vehicles and the number of deaths (December traffic is probably more than double the usual monthly volume, but only 30% more people died during this period than the average of the other months), getting people to use other, safer modes of transport dent would see the number of accidents decline. Why not divert the annual government hand-out to SAA to low-cost carriers to reduce transport volumes on the roads? A subsidy for Kulula or the new low-cost FastJet to fly between Bisho and the urban centres of Johannesburg and Cape Town may reduce the number of taxis and buses on these routes significantly. Or why not build a high-speed railway between Cape Town and Durban (with stations at George, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, East London and Mthatha) and Durban to Joburg (with stops in Pietermaritzburg and Harrismith)? Again, don’t hold your breath for support from the taxi industry.

In urban centres, other modes of transport could be incentivised. Two strategies can be followed here: make private cars more expensive, or make alternative forms of transport more affordable. E-tolls is one way to achieve the former, but the public backlash has been surprisingly strong. To be sure, the cost of implementation was excessive, but if we are to encourage alternative modes of transport, toll roads can be an important tool to alleviate road congestion and accidents. Most fatal accidents often involve large cars such as 4x4s, minibus taxes, buses or trucks. One way to encourage the acquisition and use of smaller cars is to impose a ‘weight-tax’ on cars, or to subsidise the use of motorcycles and other smaller cars. Surprisingly, there are relatively few scooters and other motorcycles in South Africa’s urban areas; travel to other African countries and these crowd the streets. Presumably, they are dangerous to use here because everyone else drives large cars. Incentives that can get South Africans to buy smaller cars will make accidents less deadly.

But to discourage the use of cars requires alternative forms of transport to be available. Higher commuting costs may increase the attractiveness of walking to work; expect property prices closer to the city to rise. (I’ve recently moved closer to my office and can now walk to work. It’s definitely recommended). Cape Town has already expanded its bicycle network and a growing number of daily commuters now use this mode of transport. The Rea Vaya and MyCiti bus systems in Johannesburg and Cape Town have slowed the increase in the number of passenger cars in these areas; expanding these networks to suburbs will continue this trend. There is even talk that the rail and bus network of Cape Town will be integrated and managed by a single authority; such operational changes are key if commuters are to give up the freedom of their private car. New networks can also be built: the Gautrain was a bold initiative and is relatively successful, although due to high ticket prices and the low number of carriages, the number of daily commuters are still only a small proportion of Ben Schoeman traffic.

Yes, we need better policing and better road infrastructure, but this further entrenches the culture of the car. The only way to reduce the number of road deaths every year is to make fundamental changes to our transport network. We need incentives that force commuters to switch from private to public transport, that promote rail freight over road freight, that encourage the use of smaller, lighter vehicles, and that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. The moral compass will follow.