Saving South Africa Traffic Law Enforcement
  • South African road fatalities are caused by the culture of lawlessness - from civilians and law enforcement alike.
  • Sometimes offenders break road regulations knowing that officers are more likely to ignore their conduct in exchange for bribery.
  • To avoid road fatality traffic, authorities need to relook their resourcing, training, and performance metrics if they hope to start making a difference.

South Africa has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world, largely due to a culture of lawlessness, both from civilians and law enforcement. Justin Manson, Sales Director at Webfleet Telematics looks at what traffic officials can do to reduce road incidents and save lives.

With an estimated 800 000 road crashes on South Africa’s roads every year, road users have emerged as the leading cause of incidents, according to the recently published inaugural Webfleet Road Safety Report. The report covered 14 000 commercial vehicles representing various companies across South Africa. It recorded 1 253 collisions (8.9%), with the highest cause being other road users, followed by distracted driving, driver fatigue, speeding, reckless driving, poor road conditions, drunk driving, and pedestrians. 

All but one of these factors relates to human behaviour. This means that South African motorists and even pedestrians have collectively developed bad habits that consistently result in harm, for themselves and others. Drunk driving, speeding, ignoring signs, stopping beyond solid lines, drinking into oncoming traffic, and a host of other minor and major infractions, are some of the things one can expect to see on South African roads every day.

Sometimes offenders are so brazen, they will violate clearly defined road statutes and regulations in front of road traffic law enforcement officers. They do this knowing that our officers are more likely than not to ignore their conduct, and in the rare case that someone is caught, the implied offer of leniency in exchange for a bribe can be expected.

The culture of lawlessness was most succinctly encapsulated when in early November 2022, a crowd of driving school owners and instructors descended on the Mbombela Local Municipality offices in Mpumalanga. Their grievance? That traffic officials were planning to increase their bribery fee from R1 700 to R2 000 per student.

While the entrenchment of corruption to this degree, where it is almost legalised, is worrying from a governance and ethics perspective, the most harmful aspect of it in the road transport sector is the risk to human life.

Human nature dictates that despite all rules, people will seek the easiest way and do just as much as they can get away with, especially when they see others doing the same. That could mean driving on the shoulder to get around traffic during rush hour, speeding through a residential area, or skipping a red robot.

Individually this might be harmless, but when enough people are breaking the law, we have a recipe for all sorts of unwanted outcomes. Granted, not everyone is taking liberties, but even if a small percentage of people do so, the roads can turn to chaos.

“Corruption aside, traffic authorities need to relook their resourcing, training, and performance metrics if they hope to start making a difference. From a resourcing perspective, putting the right people in the right places with the right tactics is essential. Budget allowing, more digital assets and a higher human presence will ensure that road users are more closely monitored and when violating, fairly and consistently prosecuted,“ says Justin Manson, Sales Director at Webfleet.

“Training should go beyond just how to do the job, but must encourage strategic, creative thinking, so that each officer makes a significant contribution, even at the lowest level of enforcement. Consistent training and retraining in a changing environment are essential. Incentivising officers with realistic, measurable performance indicators should be linked to the environment. This includes the rate of road incidents in their coverage areas, as well as congestion and overall driver (and pedestrian) behaviour,” concludes Manson. 

When road users know that there is a consistent presence of technology and traffic enforcement officers, they will inevitably and quickly conduct themselves more in line with the law, bringing down the level of road accidents and save lives of millions.