On the 22nd of January this year, the then Minister of Transport in South Africa released statistics of injuries and fatalities that occurred on roads over the recently concluded holiday. The data was grim showing that between 1 December 2017 and 9 January 2018 1, 527 people died. Yet the Minister found a silver lining since in comparison to the previous year, the total number of fatalities had declined from 1, 714.
This dark post holiday reckoning is not new. The historical record shows that it is part of what has become a ritual. The ritual usually begins just before the onset of holidays with policy-makers and other road safety proponents beseeching holidaymakers to drive carefully. Tips on safe driving are offered such as not drinking and driving, wearing seatbelts, observing speed limits, being courteous to other road users, and resting when tired.
Over the course of holiday season, reports in media emerge of growing number of road accidents accompanied by deep sadness and regret about many whose lives have been tragically cut short and others whose lives forever changed by injury. The country then gets on with the business of the new year – but only to repeat this pattern at another holiday occasion. While this ‘ritual’ maybe familiar, its long history and magnitude of injuries and fatalities even when compared to other contexts is striking.
A long history of road danger
As far back as the first decade of the 20th century there was public awareness about dangers on the roads. Newspapers ran columns bewailing they called the ‘motor peril (Unknown, 1909). For example, in an editorial, a newspaper argued that “…people are getting tired of breaking sprint and long jump records in avoiding maniacs in motor cars and of burying dogs which have fallen victim to the modern juggernauts of the Rand” (Unknown, 1999).
In 1938, the editors of a newspaper argued:
The public can only regard with anxiety and view with deep regret the number of fatal road accidents which never fail to occur whenever a public holiday, particularly a long weekend is celebrated (Unknown, 1938a).
Last year, while mourning the death of 22 people in a road accident, the then Minister of Transport argued:
Statistics further indicate that these driving crimes increase during peak traffic periods such as Easter and the Festive holidays with most of the crashes happening at night (Maswanganyi, 2017, p. 2).
While all road users are affected by the problem, it is the vulnerable are often most at risk. For example, studies show that road traffic injuries are one of the leading causes of death among children (eg, Burrows, van and Laflamme, 2010). Historical data also shows that pedestrians have been one of the most affected (Botha, 2004; Sukhai, Jones and Haynes, 2009). In 2016 “Pedestrians accounted for 38% of the fatalities with children being particularly affected” (ITF, 2017, p. 476).
Consistently high rates of injuries and fatalities
The second aspect that is striking is the consistently high rates of deaths and injuries on South African roads. See figure below which shows fatality rates per 100, 000 population over time.
In an effort to draw attention to the magnitude of the problem, road safety advocates have used various jarring metaphors. For example, during World War II, a member of parliament remarked on the fact that in two years, more South Africans had been killed and injured on the roads than in combat (Unknown, 1941).
The war metaphor was taken up in 2006 by another politician whose parliamentary role was oversight over national transport. He “compared the road death statistics to a war zone”(Unknown, 2006). Others have evoked the imagery of planes crashing to draw attention to the scale of the crisis. One comment in 1979 even referred to the road atrocities as “genocide…[that was] self inflicted”(Unknown, 1979).
The high rates of fatalities and injuries are even more evident when compared to other countries. Comparative snapshots of the rate of injuries and fatalities suggest that the trendline depicted in the figure above global averages. Data from 2015 (World Health Organisation, 2015) and early 2000s (Norman et al., 2007)for example, shows that the South African rates were higher than global midpoint.
In 1939, it was reported that “The death rate per 100, 000 people in the United States was 9.2., in Great Britain it was 7.9…[and] the Union’s [South Africa] figure was 24.8”(Unknown, 1939). This was probably an unfair comparison given the vastly different socio-economic profiles. Resources at hand shape not only the nature of response to road tragedies but also expenditures such as on infrastructure, law enforcement, and vehicle maintenance which influence safety outcomes.
Yet the poor road safety record in South Africa is observed to be high even when compared to other countries with similar levels of income. For example in 2015 the World Health Organisation estimated that amongst middle income countries, wherein South Africa was classified, 18.4 people out of 100, 000 population due to road accidents while South Africa’s rate was 25.1 (World Health Organisation, 2015).
There maybe some odd comfort in the fact that danger on South Africa’s roads – albeit only using 2015 information – when compared to other African countries is not that anomalous: Recently, a global report concluded that the highest risk of dying in road accidents was found in Africa (World Health Organisation, 2015). Furthermore, some countries on the continent even of similar income levels had worse rates of injuries and fatalities. See figure below.
An end to danger on South Africa’s roads?
Can South Africa’s woes on the roads come to an end?
Certainly overtime there have been numerous initiatives to grapple with the problem. These initiatives identified causes such as speeding, poor road courtesy, driving under the influence, and poor vehicle maintenance. They have also developed solutions such as in the themes of engineering, public education, and new regulations and their enforcement.
A few examples. In the wake of growing accidents along the Main Reef Road – then a major artery connecting towns along the Witwatersrand Reef – a commission was tasked to understand and develop solutions (Main Reef Road Commission, 1937). While the Main Reef effort was an inter-municipal deliberation, at the end of 1938 there was a unanimous call for a national investigation from a breathtaking array of interest groups who had gathered at a hotel in downtown Johannesburg (Daily Express Reporter, 1938; Unknown, 1938b). One such reckoning occurred in 1947 when then Prime Minister of South Africa called for a national conference in Pretoria on road safety (Motor Editor, 1948). In the post apartheid period, a most notable effort is the well-known ‘Arrive Alive’ campaign which was designed to focus both on changing road user behaviours and enforcement of regulations (Lamont and Lee, 2015).
Other countries such as Rwanda, South Korea, and Australia have had severe problems with road safety and taken measures that have reduced the carnage. This suggests South Africa also could end danger on roads – as it once ended the long enduring problem of apartheid. But what has been tried so far is clearly not working.
Botha, G. (2004) ‘Road Accidents in South Africa: 1990–2003’, IATSS Research, 28(2), pp. 78–79. doi: 10.1016/S0386-1112(14)60111-4.
Burrows, S., van, N. and Laflamme, L. (2010) ‘Fatal injuries among urban children in South Africa: Risk distribution and potential for reduction’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 88(4), pp. 267–272. doi: 10.2471/BLT.09.068486.
Daily Express Reporter (1938) ‘Bid to reduce road deaths in union’, Daily Express, 29 November.
ITF (2017) Road Safety Annual Report, Books / Road Safety Annual Report / 2017. Paris: OECD Publishing. Available at: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/transport/road-safety-annual-report-2017_irtad-2017-en (Accessed: 21 November 2017).
Lamont, M. and Lee, R. (2015) ‘Arrive Alive: Road Safety in Kenya and South Africa’, Technology and Culture; Baltimore, 56(2), pp. 464–488.
Main Reef Road Commission (1937) ‘Report of the Main Reef Road Commission’. Transvaal Province.
Maswanganyi, J. (2017) ‘Address by the Minister of Transport, Mr Joe Maswanganyi, on the Occasion of the Funeral Service of the Twenty Two (22) Kwaximba Road Crash Victims Held at Manzolwandle Sport Ground, Ethekwini Metropolitan Municipality – Kwazulu Natal’. Department of Transport, Republic of South Africa. Available at: http://www.transport.gov.za (Accessed: 2 November 2017).
Motor Editor (1948) ‘Union road safety council being set up by government’, Rand Daily Mail, 20 July.
Norman, R. et al. (2007) ‘The high burden of injuries in South Africa’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 85(9), pp. 695–702. doi: 10.1590/S0042-96862007000900015.
Sukhai, A., Jones, A. P. and Haynes, R. (2009) ‘Epidemiology and Risk of Road Traffic Mortality in South Africa’, South African Geographical Journal, 91(1), pp. 4–15. doi: 10.1080/03736245.2009.9725325.
Unknown (1909) ‘The Motor Peril’, Rand Daily Mail, 5 November.
Unknown (1938a) ‘Holiday death roll too high’, Rand Daily Mail, 2 August.
Unknown (1938b) ‘Request for road safety commission: Unanimous resolution at city meeting’, The Star, 8 December.
Unknown (1939) ‘High accident rate in union treated with apathy’, Cape Times, 15 December.
Unknown (1941) ‘Roads ten times deadlier than war’, Rand Daily Mail, 3 September.
Unknown (1979) ‘Deterrent to murder?’, The Citizen, 8 January.
Unknown (1999) ‘The Motor Peril: A century of Sundays : 100 years of breaking news in the Sunday times, 1906-1931’, Sunday Times, 24 October.
Unknown (2006) ‘Transport war zone’, Business Day (South Africa), 29 June.
World Health Organisation (2015) Global status report on road safety 2015. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation. Available at: http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2015/en/ (Accessed: 20 November 2017).
World Health Organisation (2017) GHO | By category | Road traffic deaths – Data by country, WHO. Available at: http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.main.A997 (Accessed: 22 November 2017).