US success shows us how

Rob Handfield-Jones April 7, 2011

Photo credit: Microstock Photography

The news out of the USA earlier this week was that their traffic death toll has dropped to the lowest levels since 1949 at a fatality rate which has reached an amazing all-time low of 0.67 fatalities / 100 million km. When I first got into driver training in 1989, the USA’s fatality rate was 1.4 fatalities / 100 million km, meaning the average USA citizen’s risk of dying in a traffic crash has been halved since then. It’s an admirable achievement when one considers the difficulty of spreading a co-ordinated road safety message in a country that big and diverse.

South Africa has an ambitious target to halve road deaths by 2014. Unfortunately, since that target was set in 2009, road deaths have increased and so, I suspect, has the fatality rate. The USA has set a fine example of how this could be reversed in South Africa if there were the political will.

The first thing we should do is stop lying to our population about the carnage on our roads. Every year after Christmas the government comes up with the same old lies about how road deaths are down when it’s clear for all to see that they’re up. I get very nervous about governments that try to hide or deny information that is public knowledge, and the DoT’s stubborn refusal to face facts reminds me of the old USSR, where reality was routinely adjusted to accommodate the Politburo’s opinion.

Deceit

So for heaven’s sake, let’s just make a clean breast of it. There is no good reason for this continued deceit and that is one of the things the USA has realised when it comes to road deaths – if you want to reduce them, measure road safety properly and be honest about the situation.

The next aspect is the importance of quality data. When you’ve got good data and you interpret it properly, you learn things about what you’re studying. The USA does extremely well on this front and has been doing so for decades. In all the years I have been following road safety data and statistics, I have never heard of a large-scale scandal which has brought the integrity of the USA’s road safety data into question.

Not only does the USA have good data, but when there is a noteworthy crash, the National Transportation Safety Board invests tireless resources in getting to the bottom of it and ensuring someone is held accountable. South Africa could take a leaf from this book. For instance, when last (if ever) was the MD of a bus company actually held criminally accountable for a bus crash where negligence or poor maintenance was the cause? The law makes provision for this, so why isn’t it happening? Where is the justice for all those dead crash victims the Department of Transport says are each “one too many”? Bus crashes in the USA, on the other hand, are reported almost as sensationally as presidential elections, and your reward for running a shabby bus operation in that country will quite likely be a stripey uniform and an extended stay in a sparsely-furnished room finished in ‘hint of concrete’.

Successful

But even good data, lovingly collected and painstakingly massaged into sensible policy, must still be given effect out on the road. From the driver’s point of view, the USA driver education system is an immutable monolith from which you will not emerge successful if you don’t have the right skills. And if you commit a serious traffic offence, you might end up back there to re-do your licence, assuming they don’t think you’re such a liability to other road users that they hand you a lifetime driving ban. The points demerit system has been running in the USA since 1959, long before there were computers to do all the legwork. Meanwhile, in the Information Age in SA, the AARTO Act (first mooted in 1993) is unlikely to be fully implemented before the world ends in December 2012.

The USA driver is thus better researched, better trained and better policed by their government than almost any other driver on earth, and that’s what road safety is all about. It’s about actually being serious about meeting targets and requiring a certain standard of driver behaviour. After all, there is very little by the way of infrastructure or engineering that accounts for the USA fatality rate dropping by one-third in the past five years or so. The USA’s roads aren’t substantially better now than they were in 2005, or even 1960 for that matter, and they have an almost unique problem with the tens of thousands of railway crossings which are a highly hazardous feature of their road system. Vehicle safety too is starting to plateau – there is a limit to the amount of crashworthiness that can be built into a 5m X 2m X 1m steel box and cars are not substantially safer now than they were five years ago, although there was a vast improvement in the preceding two decades.

Control

No, the USA’s road safety improvements are coming from its willingness to control, down to a very fine degree, what its drivers get up to on the roads. They insist that drivers are properly educated, drive roadworthy vehicles and that they adapt judiciously to the prevailing conditions. When they stop doing these things, they get nailed by the authorities, and they get nailed for all sorts of offences, not just the ones that turn a profit.

Our own DoT should learn from this. Perhaps they should start from the reality that even in 1998, the year in which SA had the lowest fatality rate ever, we still killed 9068 people on our roads. The current fatality rate is double what it was then, and the death toll, at the time the announcement about halving roads deaths by 2014 was made, was over 15000. It’s hopelessly dreamy to think that we could cut that to 7500 by 2014 when all the evidence points to the fact that our roads are currently the most anarchic they have been in the past 45 years and the fatality rate is almost certainly no lower than it was in the mid-1960s. I suggest we start by setting modest, achievable targets and actually meeting them for a few years running before raising our sights to more ambitious levels. This is what the USA has done – every year they have made minute, incremental gains which are starting to add up to something really spectacular.

The 2014 target was set out of political desperation to not appear foolish at the Moscow Ministerial Conference a couple of years ago, but it was and is fundamentally unrealistic. Right now our focus should be on eliminating the systemic failures which impede us from obtaining any reduction at all in road deaths, much less cutting them by half. Our DoT could certainly do worse than taking a lead from how things are done in Washington DC, and the US government deserves congratulations for its continued leadership in making road use safer.

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.