Research failure dogs Vundla speech

Rob Handfield-Jones March 31, 2011

How many cars per kilometre?

How many cars per kilometre?

Minister of Transport, S’bu Ndebele, has a special advisor called Themba Vundla, who, during a recent speech, let slip his opinion that one of the problems with South Africa’s roads was the increased amounts of traffic in recent years. His exact statement was: “The reality is that the vehicle population on our roads is increasing every year, posing a peculiar danger to motorists who drive recklessly on our roads.”

It’s unrealistic to always expect politicians and their close associates to understand the portfolios they are appointed to, but unfortunately it seems that a lot of people in the DoT are extremely scared of the Minister of Transport. This results in public statements which reflect policy rather than reality. A good example of this is the Christmas road death toll: the Minister of Transport has committed that road deaths will be halved by 2014, and so his minions apparently felt duty-bound to report that the death toll for Christmas 2010/2011 was down, even though correct analysis of the government’s own figures shows that it’s up. This is nothing new – the DoT has been doing it for several years, but it highlights the dangers of allowing political imperatives to override or eliminate the technical expertise of state apparatus.

Against this background, it is unsurprising that Vundla would say an increase in vehicle population poses a “peculiar danger”. (It sounds plausible, so who cares whether it’s right?) A superficial guided tour of the real facts regarding vehicle densities will demonstrate not only how inaccurate it is, but how easily he could have researched the subject.

Study

According to a 2008 AA study, the total length of South Africa’s roads is approximately 600 000km. The number of vehicles on our roads, as reported by E-Natis, was 9.91 million vehicles as at the end of February 2011. This equates to approximately 16.5 cars per kilometre of road, or 60 metres per vehicle, if you prefer.

The UK Institute of Advanced Motorists, on the other hand, reports that Britain has 412 933 km of roads, but a staggering total of 28.67 million vehicles. This means they have 69.5 cars per kilometre of road, or 14 metres per vehicle. In other words, the population density of cars in the UK is four and a quarter times higher than that of South Africa. Not only that, but the roads that the UK’s cars travel on are packed into a far smaller country than those of South Africa, meaning that it’s easier for congestion on one part of the road network to affect another, and that there is a shorter average distance between intersections, with all the accompanying potential for danger.

According to Wikipedia, the United Kingdom has a surface area of 243 610 km2, almost exactly one-fifth of South Africa’s 1 221 037km2. This means that in the UK, there are 118 cars per square km, compared to SA’s 8 cars per square km. Not only does each South African vehicle have much more road to travel on, it’s also much less likely to come across another vehicle. Just to illustrate the difference: South Africa would need to have a vehicle population of 144 million to attain the UK’s traffic density by area, or approximately 42 million to be equivalent by road space.

Dangerous

So, returning to Vundla’s statements about how increasing vehicle population poses additional danger, let’s summarise by saying that if one looks at vehicle populations and traffic densities, the United Kingdom would appear to be at a severe disadvantage to South Africa and it would be natural to assume that it would be far more dangerous to drive in the UK.

Wrong! We know the SA government hasn’t released a fatalities / 100 million figure since 2006, so we’ll use the one from that year, 12.02, although it’s probably considerably higher by now. The UK government, does, however, keep its fatality rates up to date, and it currently averages about 0.8 fatalities / 100 million km. In other words, despite the fact that traffic densities in the UK are five times higher (by road length) and 15 times higher (by land area), you’re about 15 times less likely to be killed driving there than in South Africa.

That doesn’t even begin to take account of some of the other hazards one faces on the UK’s roads – the frequent rain, for example and poor visibility due to the generally inclement weather. One might also consider England’s topography, which is far less conducive to long, straight sections of road with good visibility such as are commonplace in South Africa. And what about things that the average South African driver will rarely experience in their lifetimes, like black ice, snow, sleet, and whiteout conditions? These are commonplace for the British driver.

Risk

The aforegoing discussion is a good illustration of why it is so important that South Africa should release up-to-date fatalities / 100 million km figures. This measure is a means of comparing road safety after all the issues touched on above have been taken into consideration. It’s an overall expression of risk, which is it is used by, among others, the USA and the United Kingdom as their headline measure of road safety – it’s a way of saying: “After every single factor related to driver, road, environment, weather and vehicle is taken into account, one’s risk of death is X.” There is no evidence I’ve seen that heavier traffic densities increase these fatality rates. Indeed, the countries world-wide with the highest traffic densities are generally those with the best road safety records.

Co-incidentally, in the same speech in which Vundla made his comments about traffic densities, he bemoaned the lack of accurate road safety data. How odd! In May 2008 I warned the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport of exactly that problem. Three years later, the problem is still evident. Besides, Vundla’s statements show no evidence of him having researched the available statistics, so one must ask what he wants them for.

Indeed, at the risk of belabouring the point by referring to yet more statistics, South Africa’s vehicle population is five times higher now than it was in 1970, but our current fatality rate is still exactly the same as it was then. I can think of no stronger evidence to show Vundla that traffic density is the least of South Africa’s problems and it behoves him to take more care before making public statements that can so easily be shown to be incorrect.

About Rob Handfield-Jones, the author

Rob's motto is "...cars, cars, cars..." and he's been a leading innovator in the field of driving skills training since 1989. Away from the serious stuff, Rob enjoys working on cars, writing about them and playing with them - he has numerous TV stunt-driving credits, many wins and lap records in circuit racing, and has also tried his hand at special stage rallying. He writes regularly on road safety issues for several publications and is a well-known radio commentator via his "On the road" road safety slot on Classic FM 102.7.