Blue Light violence again highlights need for urgent intervention in VIP unit’s operations

The vicious assault on three drivers on the N1 highway in Fourways, Johannesburg, last night by members of the SAPS’ VIP Protection Unit again raises concern over the threat this unit poses to motorists in the country. The Automobile Association (AA) says the incident is outrageous and deplorable and those responsible should be dealt with speedily to show government is serious about resolving this problem.

“In early 2022 we noted our deep concerns about the so-called Blue Light Brigades and the threat they pose to road users. They are aggressive towards other drivers often pushing them off the road to ensure their convoy has easy passage – many times through heavy traffic. We noted then, as we do again here, that anecdotal evidence points to members screaming at other motorists, showing their firearms to other motorists to intimidate them, and generally being belligerent when on the road. Last night’s incident is another example of a unit acting above the law,” says AA CEO Willem Groenewald.

Groenewald says despite repeated calls for proper oversight of the VIP unit’s operations this clearly has not happened, and the unit’s members continue to act with impunity, often considering other road users a menace instead of, rightfully, citizens they need to protect and serve.

“What concerns me more is who this unit was transporting at the time of the incident. Who was the principal involved and why did they not intervene? This incident is yet another illustration of how laws are deemed to apply to one section of the population but not to another. It simply cannot continue like this,” he says.

Section 58(3) of the National Road Traffic Act (NRTA) permits drivers of emergency vehicles such as traffic officers and duly authorised drivers, as well as particularly a “person appointed in terms of the South African Police Service Act who drives a vehicle in the carrying out of his or her duties” to disregard the directions of a road traffic sign displayed in the prescribed manner. Regulation 176 of the NRTA further states that drivers on the road are supposed to give an absolute right of way to a vehicle sounding a device or bell of displaying an identification lamp.

“However, we contend that any driver who drives recklessly or is careless about the safety of other users on the road should be held liable for gross negligence where they pose a threat to property or another person whether they are driving a politician, delegate, VIP, or a car fitted with a blue light, just like any other road user. Last night’s violent incident has gone beyond any standard practice of policing and cannot be justified in any way. The AA, and South Africans, are owed a proper response from the SAPS and the government about last night’s events,” says Groenewald.

He says the AA welcomes the news that the victims of last night’s assault have been traced and trusts that their statements will be used to secure severe penalties for all those involved – including for the principal the unit was transporting. He says this process cannot only be done internally at the SAPS but should be managed through the country’s courts.

“I also concur with our colleagues at Arrive Alive who note that ‘… any investigation should also focus on whether such excessive force and perceived lack of self-control and sound judgment meet the competency required to be entrusted with firearms’. Given last night’s events, we must also question if last night’s incident is a bellwether of the current state of policing in the country,” Groenewald says.

He notes further that considering the country’s disastrous road safety situation, the behaviour of drivers in the VIP Protection Unit – and those they are transporting – cannot be left unchallenged.

“I repeat what we noted in 2022 that if politicians and members of the Cabinet speak on road safety, and the need to deal effectively with the carnage on our country’s roads, they must also obey the rules and instruct their drivers to do likewise. When Blue Light Brigades exceed speed limits, and drive dangerously and recklessly, the message is that rules don’t apply to them, and that the safety of other road users doesn’t matter to them,” Groenewald concludes.

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