Fatal crashes: Why South Africa has such a bad reputation

Fatal crashes: Why South Africa has such a bad reputation

Bus and minibus accidents have been a factor in giving South Africa a bad reputation internationally, but what do the statistics say? And how accurate are these statistics? UDO RYPSTRA ponders these questions in the first of three articles …

The South African minibus, bus and coach industry − drivers in particular − has the reputation for having one of the worst accident rates in the world. Two World Health Organisation (WHO) reports – one in 2000 and the latest issued last year – have endorsed the reputation.

And, when it comes to the severity of our accidents, we appear to be second on the global list. According to Wikipedia, which lists more than 200 “notable historical road accidents” which occurred around the world between 2000 and 2010, the Bethlehem bus crash on 1 May 2003 is quoted as “one of the worst vehicle accidents of all time, when a coach drove into a reservoir near the town of Bethlehem, South Africa, killing 80 passengers.” The bus was transporting 90 South African trade union delegates to May Day celebrations in the town of Qwa-Qwa in the Free State. Note that a Lagos (Nigeria) road tanker which slammed into a traffic tailback, exploding and killing nearly 200 people in 2000, heads the list.

Accidents like these make front page news all over the world and so do bus and coach accidents in which foreign tourists are killed. Not listed by Wikipedia as it occurred before 2000, is an accident on 27 September 1999, when a coach veered off a pass near Nelspruit and rolled down a steep embankment, killing 28 elderly British tourists and a tourist guide.

Also not listed is a crash which occurred on 10 June last year when three young British students on their way from Swaziland to Nelspruit, were killed near Barberton. Both accidents were reported with screaming headlines in the British daily press, reporting that the drivers and unroadworthiness of the vehicles were to blame, intensifying our local industry’s bad reputation.

The severity of accidents is one thing, but only four SA road accidents – one involving a truck carrying 19 passengers (not a bus) − are mentioned on the Wikipedia site, with most of the other bus accidents having occurred in developing or undeveloped African and Asian countries.

The frequency of road accidents or road accident mortality rates per country is another issue, and in this instance South Africa also appears close to the top of the list of “baddies”. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which monitors road death statistics from 178 participating member countries, including SA, motor collisions are the 6th most common cause of death (going for 5th) in developed nations with an average rate of 20,8 per 100 000/population in the year 2000 (30,8 for males, 11,0 for females).

In the year 2000, a widely published survey found that African nations had the world’s highest road traffic mortality rates, with most countries having a rate of more than 30, Eritrea having the highest rate of 48,4 in the world, compared to the low rates given for Sweden (2,9), United Kingdom (3,5), Holland (4,1), Germany (5,5) and France (6,9). In the 2000 survey, South Africa’s rate was given as 33,2, which was almost three times higher than the rate for the United States (12,3). But that was 11 years ago. What is SAs rate now?

Details regarding South African annual road fatalities have been published since 1935 and in recent years have been published on various websites: SA Statistics, Arrive Alive, and more recently by the Road Transport Management Corporation (RMTC). They not only provide regular annual updates on road accident fatality and injury rates in general, but distinguish between fatalities by province, type of vehicles involved (eg cars, minibuses, buses, bicycles, animals, etc), causes of accident (eg driver-related, vehicle-related, road conditions), and also the estimated costs to the SA economy in terms of work hours lost.

These statistics were, and still are, gained from preliminary accident reports by police stations nationwide and also by the CAS Analysis Report provided by the South African Police Services.

The accuracy of these statistics have been questioned by the press, which last year accused the RTMC of having “rigged” seasonal road accident statistics during the 2009/2010 holiday season. Having drawn up press releases from these statistics as a media consultant at Arrive Alive offices in Pretoria some years ago, I know these statistics are not especially accurate. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years to work out final statistics, particularly when they relate to the suspected causes of fatal incidents.

That fatality numbers could be inaccurate was readily admitted by the RTMC last year when it denied the rigging allegations. Many injured people die in hospital well after an accident occurs, a fact which, in my experience, is often overlooked in the CAS Analysis Report as it allows only 30 days for gathering hospital information, which is often not made available in time.

The point is that any student of road safety should take this into account when looking at annual or financial year statistics − which in South Africa’s case, runs from 1 April until the end of March the following year. The RTMC issued a statement last year saying it was in the process of testing a system called “Real Time Accident Reporting” which would capture accident information on a daily basis as it is received from police stations and hospitals. “Real time” information to “interested parties and stakeholders” would be provided immediately.

This may explain the reason why the figures for 2008/9 have not yet been published by the RTMC on its website (never mind for 2009/10).

The latest road fatality statistics per country report from the WHO for 2009, published late last year, uses 2007 figures supplied by the RMTC. It states there were 14 920 road deaths, and injuries to 219 978 people in SA during the year 2007. The RTMC gave WHO a SA population figure of 48 575 763 which provides a mortality rate per 100 000 population of 32,5. It also means that, statistically, if one relies on the WHO report, an average of 40,8 people died in SA road accidents every day in 2007 and not “over 400 on average per day”, as reported in an overseas newspaper recently.

The RTMC’s own annual statistics are different because they are based on a financial year which runs from April to March. Statistics for the 2007/8 financial year state that the number of fatal crashes decreased by 1 000 (7,95%) from 12 577 crashes in 2006/7 to 11 577 crashes during 2007/8. More importantly, the number of road fatalities had decreased from 15 515 to 14 627 (5,7%). On this basis, the 2007/8 RTMC report claims a road accident mortality rate of 31,3, which must be based on a different (lower) population figure than the one it supplied to WHO. But, it confirms that an average of 40 people died in fatal crashes every day during 2007/8!

Populations grow, and so does the vehicle population. The very interesting fact is that in 2007/8, the number of registered vehicles increased by 455 615 (5,22%) to 9 182 677 vehicles on 31 March 2008. On a percentage basis the biggest change was for buses, which increased by 9,14% to 40,760.

These increases would support claims that minibus and bus accidents have been increasing but instead, statistics up to 2007/8 suggest there has been a down trend in accidents and fatalities involving these types of vehicles. According to the RTMC stats, fatalities caused by accidents involving trucks went up, but only from 955 to 974 (2%) in the 2007/8 year. But those involving cars decreased from 7 386  to 6 896 (-6,6%), those involving minibuses from 1 503 to 1 365 (-9,2%), those involving minibus taxis from 373 to 302 (-19%) and those involving buses from 404 to 285 – a surprising -29,5%!

Could this be the result of stricter law enforcement, as well as better driver training (combined with vehicle replacement)? Or both?

The main question is whether this overall down trend in the road accident mortality rate has continued to decrease since March 2008, or if it has remained level, or has gone into reverse, as claimed. Detailed statistics for April 2010 to March 2011, probably using the new system, will only be made known later this year and the RTMC recently hinted that although there has been a small, but “significant” decrease in road deaths each year (since 2006/7), the mortality rate remained far too high.

Spokesperson Ashref Ishmail said at least 35 motorists died on South African roads each day, but that the average was placed at between 35 and 40.

Comparing driver skills in Africa with those in Europe and the US is not comparing apples to apples. Often overlooked are the major differences in the quality of road infrastructure, road and weather conditions. In Africa driver skills are tested to the limit with additional hurdles for drivers to cope with: animals and “uninformed” pedestrians being a major road hazard.

An alarming statistic is the number of pedestrians who are killed on our roads. In 2007/8, 5 578 or 39% of the total number were pedestrian fatalities killed in accidents involving cars (2 464), hit-and-runs − where the type of vehicle is unknown (1 029), minibuses (592), trucks (394) and buses (123).

In many cases, these deaths cannot be blamed on poor driving skills. If one takes pedestrian road deaths out of the equation, South Africa’s high mortality rate could be reduced by more than a third, and in so doing, come close to the world average of 20. Wishful thinking?

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