When one reads stories on road safety in the media, one often sees officials exhorting motorists to be ‘law-abiding’. In the comments sections of online articles, and the letters pages of newspapers, one likewise sees readers making the same call, or claiming that they are writing ‘on behalf of law-abiding drivers’.
Well firstly, I must ask where all these ‘law-abiding’ drivers are. Not on South Africa’s roads, judging by our fatality rates. Indeed, I see drivers routinely proceeding with practised indifference for a slew of traffic laws, and one of the main problems on our roads actually seems to be that we don’t have enough law-abiding drivers. But what of the perception that being a ‘law-abiding’ driver is adequate to prevent crashes? Bad news: it’s not.
Consider this scenario: you are approaching an intersection at which a car is waiting to turn right across your path. In terms of traffic law, there is no danger present since you are a ‘law-abiding’ driver and aren’t going to erratically swerve into him, and he’s stopped anyway and waiting for you. For the purposes of traffic law, it is also irrelevant that you will shortly enter a scenario which places you just one metre away from a head-on crash at a speed of possibly 120km/h. However, you face a mountain of obstacles, none of which have been legislated upon. What, for instance, if the other driver doesn’t check properly and turns in front of you? The law offers no suggestion that such a thing might happen, and no guidance on how to prevent or cope with it. The law presumes that the other driver will be as ‘law abiding’ as you. Now ask yourself what if he has a clutch or gearbox failure and the vehicle lurches into your path uncontrollably? Here too, the law is silent. What if his foot slips off the brake or clutch? What if he’s hit from behind? The law does not demand that drivers keep their wheels straight wherever possible while waiting to turn right across traffic, so they generally don’t. This means that the car will be pushed into your path in the event of a rear impact. Et cetera.
What I’m saying is that hundreds of times a day your life is placed at risk from things that have never appeared on the statute books and never will. So why, you may ask, don’t we write all these things into law instead of having general provisions about ‘negligence’ and driving with ‘care’?
There are two reasons. Firstly, if we had to codify every single potential hazard which a motorist might conceivably face into law, the Road Traffic Act in its printed form would fill a concert hall. Secondly, the Act makes the basic and sensible assumption that only people who have already been equipped with sufficient skills to recognise hazards and judge the extent of danger will be driving on public roads and thus be subject to the provisions of the Act. To this end, the Act provides for a driving test. It also provides for the appointment and testing of learner driving instructors, and of inspectors of licensing to excercise oversight.
The problem is that the driving test it comes from an era half a decade before the first cars even got airbags in South Africa and is thus entirely out of date. This was not always the case, of course, but the real problem arose with government’s emasculation of the driving instructor’s competency test in 1996. This caused a flight of skills from the teaching process – the really professional instructors, the ones who could communicate all those extra aspects and details above and beyond the basic requirements of the licence test, were, in many cases, forced out of the industry by under-skilled “instructors” who charged (and continue to charge) cut-throat rates for abysmal tuition. This resulted in the complete bypassing of the Act’s unspoken premise that the detail of driving not contained in legislation would taught to learner drivers by skilled instructors. The Road Traffic Act of 1989 was the most sweeping re-write of traffic legislation in 40 years – it was written alongside the K53 licence test and both took effect on the same day. The Act recognised the role of quality instructors as a critical component of the system, and then, when the Act was updated in 1996, this principle was overturned for reasons that have never been adequately explained.
Around the same time, the inspectorate of licensing dwindled to an insignificant appendage with fewer than six inspectors to supervise over 200 testing stations. Combined with the rampant corruption in licensing, we thus arrive at the present day where new drivers lack almost all of the major skills needed to keep them alive. This has resulted from the holes in the system not only getting bigger, but being aligned perfectly to allow new drivers to slip through a cascade of failures onto the roads, where many are promptly killed.
And this is one of the reasons why traffic law is no longer effective at preventing crashes – it can only do so when all road users (including pedestrians) in close proximity on a given stretch of road are being ‘law abiding’. The moment any single one disobeys the law, the entire framework of traffic legislation suffers a micro-collapse, because licence-level training no longer includes teaching drivers a Plan B to keep them safe in the event of someone else’s error. That was the primary cause of the high fatality rates in the 1970s and 1980s, and we had no sooner addressed the problem and started to enjoy results when the sweep of a legislative pen took us back to square one. Consequently, our entire traffic system operates on luck, rather than skill, and when multiple road users break the law simultaneously, the result is almost always a crash.
When I got into the driver training business more than two decades ago, trainees we saw generally grasped the basics and had a bit more knowledge besides. Nowadays though, we are not only having to teach defensive driving, but in very many cases, remind people about adherence to basic traffic laws. Twenty years ago, we saw one trainee with an obviously fake or irregular licence who couldn’t actually drive properly every three months. Now we see one a week and in one particularly bad case recently, I saw three in a single day. I therefore regard claims of adherence to the law by rank-and-file drivers as unjustifiable. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that the majority of drivers in South Africa are law-abiding, and even those who are mostly lack the defensive skills to avoid their non-compliant opponents on the road. It is yet another hurdle which the Department of Transport will have to face up to if it wishes to see change visited upon our highways and byways.