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Billions lost due to road fatalities

16 October 2013

Phumla WilliamsIt is often said that transport is the heartbeat of a society and its economy. Every day thousands of trucks traverse our roads with valuable cargo bound for destinations near and far. Millions of drivers also take to our roads daily, commuting from their homes to places of work or elsewhere.

Since 1994 government has invested heavily in ensuring that our transport and roads infrastructure is world class. Over the past few years motorists in Gauteng have experienced a much improved and faster journey due to improvements on the roads through the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP).

Last week President Jacob Zuma unveiled the newly opened R81 road that links Polokwane to Giyani which is an extension of or road infrastructure network. Government invested R245 million on the road which will directly benefit the Capricorn District Municipality, Polokwane Local Municipality and Mopani District municipality, and will cut down the travel time between Polokwane and Giyani. This new development will make it easier to move both people and goods between Polokwane and Giyani.

President Zuma also announced that significant progress has been made in the construction of the R71 road between Polokwane and Tzaneen. These two projects are part of government’s commitment to spend over R1 trillion within its term on key infrastructure projects including transport-related expenditure.

While speaking at the launch President Zuma also spoke of the devastating effect of road accidents on our society. He said that at least 14 000 people die on our roads every year and 46 percent of these are pedestrians. He emphasised that road accidents deprived families of bread winners and lamented that people often lose their loved ones in horrific ways.

President Zuma also spoke of the economic cost to this carnage; it is estimated that at least R306 billion is lost to the South African economy annually as a result of road crashes, fatal or otherwise. “This situation is abnormal. We need a radical change of attitude and commit to work on reducing the road carnage,” he said.

By any measure the number of deaths on our roads in unacceptably high, and interventions aimed at reducing fatalities are a priority. At the same time we must find ways to reduce the overall number of accidents; it is estimated that there is a road crash every five minutes.

Our roads are the lifeblood of society; about 80 percent of the population is dependent on public transport. Minibus taxis are responsible for 65 percent of the 2,5 billion annual passenger trips in urban areas, as well as a high percentage of rural and intercity transport. There are 289 013 registered minibuses and over 300 000 heavy load trucks on our roads, thousands of smaller trucks and delivery vehicles and millions of cars.

Government is committed to ensuring the safety of people who travel on our roads. Earlier this month as part of Transport Month the Department of Transport hosted a National Road Safety Summit to explore ways of improving safety on our roads.

Topping the agenda was finding ways to assist in the reduction of road fatalities and to decrease crashes. Also discussed were methods to bring about a change in road user behaviour such as encouraging voluntary compliance to road traffic rules, speeding up the implementation of good road practice and making road safety part of everyday life. The summit also looked at legislative amendments aimed at improving road safety and the importance of addressing road infrastructure.

Sceptics may well scoff and dismiss this as just another talk shop; however, summit participants were placed into various commissions in order to thoroughly engage the five pillars of road safety: Road safety management; safer roads and mobility; safer vehicles; safer road users; and post-crash care. They also interrogated how to best maximise the legal and regulatory framework.

The road safety management commission recommended a standardisation of norms and standards and capacity building for both traffic law enforcement officers and road safety practitioners. A recommendation for traffic law enforcement to be applied consistently across the country was also raised.

The commission on safer roads and mobility recommended that each province identify the five most hazardous locations and implement remedial measures, including engineering, education and enforcement. They also suggested that road safety education and awareness programmes should be compulsory.

The commission on safer vehicles called for compulsory minimum standards for public transport vehicles. They also recommended the phased implementation of periodic vehicle testing and a review of the vehicle testing environment, including monitoring of compliance and combating fraud and corruption.

The commission on safer road users recommended that pedestrian infrastructure - overhead bridges, speed calming measures such as traffic lights, speed humps, stop streets, rumble strips and traffic circles - be improved. They also suggested that speed limits in areas with high pedestrian activity be reduced to 40k/h and the distance between motorists and cyclists be regulated to 1.5 meters.

Concrete recommendations that are sure to help in the fight against road carnage were made in all of the commissions. At the conclusion of the summit the Minister of Transport, Dipuo Peters, pledged to implement some of the recommendations immediately. She also said that talks at the summit would inform the Road Safety Strategy 2014 – 2019.

Government is confident that we can win the battle to make our roads safer for all. Horrific collisions are all too common and the recent tragic deaths on our roads in both the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal which claimed dozens of lives are a reminder of the human cost of road accidents.

President Zuma’s sombre words when he unveiled the R81 road ring true. “I urge all South Africans to obey the rules of the road without exception at all times. Do not drive under the influence of alcohol. Respect fellow road users. I urge all, young and old to take road safety seriously. Road Safety Begins With You!”

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)