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SOUTH AFRICA: Plan to cut road deaths gets cold shoulder

September 28, 2011 |  6:24 am

REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- This country's road fatality rate is among the worst in the world, but there are times when the horror really hits home. Take the bus accident last month in which a school bus plunged from a bridge and into a river near the coastal town of Knysna, killing 14 children and the driver.

With 76 people killed in bus and minibus accidents in South Africa last month, Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele says the situation is out of hand. The annual fatality count is more than 13,700, according to the most recent figures, for 2009.

But when Ndebele ventured a solution recently, reducing the speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour to 100 (from 75 mph to 62), the response was, well, underwhelming.

"There are increasing calls and signs that something drastic needs to be done to arrest the current situation," Ndebele said last week, announcing he would propose a cut in the speed limit to the Cabinet. "Studies conducted in other countries such as Australia, where the speed limit is 110 kilometers per hour, indicate that a reduction in speed limit can save lives."

But in a country where ruling-party politicians have been picked up by police traveling at high speed -- and former President Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter was killed in a road accident -- Ndebele's suggestion was attacked by transport unions and groups representing drivers.

The powerful South African Transport and Allied Workers Union said reducing the speed limit would be futile. "We find it hard to believe that the minister has given this enough thought," the union said in recent statement. “Making public statements out of emotions is not a way to address South Africa's road safety challenges.”

The Justice Project of South Africa, a nonprofit group that offers citizens advice on traffic fines, said speed was rarely to blame in fatal accidents. Spokesman Howard Dembovksy said alcohol was more often the cause of fatal crashes. The Automobile Assn. said it also was unconvinced that cutting the speed limit would help.

The South African government has vowed to cut road fatalities by 50% between 2007 and 2015. The latest statistics on South African road abuses suggest multiple causes for the country's high number of road fatalities. Between October of last year and August of this year, police arrested 17,758 drunk drivers and seized nearly 47,000 unroadworthy vehicles (mainly buses and minibuses used for public transport) according to government figures.

Over the five-week holiday season from early December 2009 to mid-January 2010, nearly 4,000 people were arrested for drunk driving, more than 400 for speeding and more than 300 for reckless or negligent driving. In South Africa, according to the latest figures (2009), there are more than 9.5 million registered vehicles on the road, and more than a million unroadworthy vehicles, many of them unregistered. More than 12% of drivers were driving on expired licenses in 2009.

It's a similar picture across much of the continent, where road fatalities are high, compared with Europe. More than 200,000 Africans die each year in road crashes.

The Make Roads Safe global campaign reports that Africa's annual rate of road fatalities is among the highest regional rates in the world -- 32.2 people per 100,000 population, compared with 11 per 100,000 in Europe. The figure for South Africa was 28 per 100,000 according to the South African Ministry of Transport.


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-- Robyn Dixon