A momentary lapse of reason

With no legislation covering how high cube containers should be transported does the Department of Transport need to consider legalising the status quo, rather than developing a new standard?

One of the country’s greatest impediments to progress is this government’s often-displayed anti-business agenda. Attacks on business in the media by government officials are common, yet the process of business regulation is onerous and inefficient – as anyone who has dealt with CIPRO lately will know. Another example of this dubious regard for business was the Department of Transport’s arbitrary decision, late last year, to go on a prosecution rampage over the issue of so-called ‘high cube’ containers being moved by road.

The background is that high cube containers are rapidly becoming the de facto world standard for containers. The problem is that we don’t have legislation describing how they should be transported in order to comply with our roads’ height restrictions. Several bodies and individuals within the transport industry have tried to rectify this situation, and in the past the Department of Transport (DoT) has turned a blind eye to the ‘over-height’ violations which were occurring. That was until December last year. That’s when there was a sudden flurry of prosecutions which led to containers piling up in harbours as road transport operators were too scared to move them for fear of their trucks being impounded. (The decision was reversed almost immediately following a massive outcry from transport operators.)

The road transport industry has attempted to enlighten the DoT regarding the practical realities of this situation, such as the legacy issue that very few trailers can legally transport high cubes. Until the prosecutions started, there had been very little movement from the DoT’s side, so it’s difficult to see what other options were available to transport operators. The irony of the situation is that if the government was truly committed to transport development, these containers would largely go by rail and the current squabble would be a minor breakbulk issue rather than a threat to national commerce.

There is also a wider problem in that government officials often don’t understand the laws they’re meant to be enforcing. A case in point being the left-hand drive legislation. Enforcers take the heavy-handed attitude of “we are the government and you will obey us”. This approach leaves no door open to the possibility that the enforcement might be unfair, unrealistic, or just plain wrong.

The Road Freight Association (RFA) recently circulated a notice confirming that the DoT has agreed to the moratorium on further high cube prosecutions until a solution has been found. A run out period for existing trailers, and a time frame for developing a new standard for building trailers to transport high cube containers legally, has also been proposed by the RFA. Hopefully the DoT will agree that this would be the most sensible solution to the problem. Alternatively, they might consider just relaxing the height restriction as has been done in the past. This would be the simplest solution and it wouldn’t really affect the road network. High cube containers have been transported ‘illegally’ for years without apparent ill-effects, so why not just legalise the status quo? Either way, it’s troubling that the situation ever got this far. Economic growth and job creation are undermined when government functionaries impose restrictions without considering what’s best for the country. 


Rob Handfield-Jones has spent 20 years indulging his three passions: vehicles, road safety and writing. He heads up driving.co.za, a company which offers training in economical and safe driving.

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