Road safety enforcement is a difficult balancing act between education, awareness, visibility, and penalties. It is easy to get it wrong, writes Mabila Mathebula.
Years ago a teacher drafted me into a debating team on a catch 22 topic; ‘Is motor power a boon or a curse?’ Rising incidents, risk tolerance and revenue based enforcement are proving a cultural curse.
My team had argued that cars were a boon, citing utility and economy. We were defeated on technical points for lacking Denzel Washington’s analytic and debating skills. Our argument had pulled punches, so our opponents capitalised on declining oil reserves, technology monopoly, rising road risks, and the glaring impossibility of ensuring traffic safety.
Our detractors had solid arguments. The UN Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011 to 2020 aims to reduce horrific rates of road deaths, and SA is notable among countries where accident rates and loss severity rates have not improved.
Traction, whether air power, rail power or motor power, is causing untold human disasters. Personal cars and trucks have slowly killed off sensible public transport systems worldwide, like the USA midwest railways, SA rural rail, as well as Gauteng urban trams and buses.
Litany of transport disasters
SA roads claim about 14 000 people per year. This is 1000 people per month, or 40 people per day, and “could be described as an epidemic,” said Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele. He had a forlorn look on his face when responding to reasons for a series of recent transport disasters in air, rail and road:
• Soweto train collision between Mzimhlope and Phumulong, not an isolated incident in recent months.
• Two aircraft crashing into terrain near Tzaneen, with no sign of civil aviation incidents decreasing.
• George bus plunging into a dam with school learners, like the Westdene dam bus disaster when learners from Voorentoe Hoerskool died some years ago, and too many other recent fatal bus incidents.
Inspections and fines change nothing
Merely reducing the general speed limit to 110km/h, of course, would not be an adequate response. That would merely empower more trapping and fining.
When mining fatalities leveled out to sporadic disasters, former President Thabo Mbeki decreed a general state ‘audit’ that unfortunately became a mere general inspection, a snapshot of a limited set of supposed ‘compliance’ measures that had no lasting effect on mining.
Rev Kenneth Meshoe agrees with the Automobile Association (AA) that poor road maintenance and lack of enforcement cause accidents. Slowing down would not prevent accidents.
SA prime minister Jan Smuts realised in 1927 that “holism underlies a synthetic tendency in the universe, as a principle that makes for origin and progress”.
Road safety requires safety ‘climate’
Traffic behaviour turn hazards into risk, and behaviour is ruled by social climate, that in turn eventually changes culture and values.
The relationship between culture and climate is widely misunderstood. Safety culture comprises slowly embedded, unstated assumptions that govern how people act, while climate comprises currently prevailing influences on classes of behaviour, like driving behaviour.
Climate changes faster, depending on incidents, resources and leadership. Culture is background, while climate is foreground.
Major incidents do not change culture. Broadbent, an Australian safety consultant that often visits Gauteng, talks about the importance of ‘geo culture’ in safety behaviour, which is rooted in local geographical locations.
“Geo culture translates into behaviour. I was told that if you are pulled over by Gauteng traffic police, the phrase to remember is ‘could we negotiate my error’. There is a similar ritual in India.
Enforcement is inconsistent, uncertain, delayed and disconnected from personal ethics, while advantages of breaking some traffic rules are consistent, certain, and immediate. Rules alone therefore does not change climate, nor behaviour, nor culture.
Fines and tallies change nothing
Heavy traffic fines do not improve safety, as researcher Dennis found in 1997. ‘End of pipe’ thinking, rooted in accident investigation and regulatory compliance, does not improve road safety.
Invisible policing will never improve the culture of safety driving.
The Transport Minister, like most traffic cops, remain stuck in reactive mode; “Each province, district and municipality will report monthly on the number of accidents occurring in their area,” he said.
Instead, incident reporters should be trained in hazard identification and risk assessment (Hira), root cause analysis techniques, and behaviour based safety (BBS), to formulate proactive measures. Fixing the causes of future ‘accidents’ is the way to go for each province and metro.
Metro traffic ‘police’, as they regrettably name themselves, should conduct safety climate surveys.
How to change traffic climate
DOT should do a traffic safety audit of its own interventions, and at driver testing stations, not inspections. Audits do not ‘catch’ operators, but find root causes of future failures and informs design of a safety assurance program.
Driver testers should be forced to undertake safety action plans. Corruption and flagrant violations must be studied and punished. Testers should check on hazard and risk recognition when examining learners.
For example, drivers who identify a sign for ‘slippery road’ may not know how to drive on a slippery road.
Testing stations should use practical testing. Multiple choice questions are not good enough if they are not holistic.
Operators should manage safety
Taxis, truckers and bus operators should each develop safety reporting and management systems, to be audited by DOT annually.
Traffic officers should use a behaviour based safety approach, including a system of feedback and guidance to drivers. A points system could be effective, but the Aarto system and its points system is riddled with impracticalities and ‘enforcement’ paradigms.
Enforcement should focus on pedestrian hot spots.
Passengers should be empowered to ‘speak up’ and report bad drivers. New drivers should be appointed to a mentor for a year. Drivers should be examined on fatigue prevention and management.
Safe drivers should be rewarded more regularly, and by authorities, instead of the voluntary AA. Traffic officers should distinguish between misjudgment and violations.
Public transport and taxi drivers should receive extra training from taxi associations. Road and pedestrian safety should be part of the school curriculum.
Emulate USA ‘Reform and Results Act’
Government and state agencies are not very efficient. Old assumptions about government roles are no longer valid. Government should adopt corporate strategies.
Former USA president Bill Clinton championed a customer focused culture in state agencies, and signed into law a USA Government Reform and Results Act of 1993, requiring agencies to develop strategic plans for achieving measurable results. Clinton directed USA regulators to ensure and measure results, not punishment after failure.
Gauteng could raise its safety climate to the level of Malaysia. Rev Meshoe is witness to how climate changes behaviour: “When I was in Malaysia, I was impressed by the way motorist obeyed the rules of the road.”
• Mabula Mathebula (BA UNW, BA Hon UNISA, MBA MGI, Post Grad Dipl Advanced PM Cranfield) is completing a PhD in Organisational Behaviour at UP. He is a member of PMSA, former member of USA Transport Research Board and SA Railway Association Safety Committee, and managing member of a behavioural safety consultant, Safety Gabs.