Paying the penalty

By now the story of Sizwe Shezi, the guy from Durban who was sentenced to 18 months in jail for skipping a red traffic light, has been well ventilated.  The general consensus seems to be that the sentence was too harsh. I differ. You’re more likely to be killed in a traffic crash than to be murdered in South Africa, and sentencing for traffic offences should proceed accordingly.

For instance, the maximum sentence for drinking and driving is six years/R120 000. How many times has that sentence been imposed? Not once. Quite the opposite, in fact: we frequently hear of people up before a magistrate for their second or third drinking-and-driving offence, and yet again being sent off with a slap on the wrist. Is this acceptable in a country where half of drivers killed in crashes are under the influence?

If just one hardy magistrate were to jail someone for six years for drinking and driving, repeat offences would disappear overnight. Such a sentence would result in screaming headlines and mass public awareness that driving drunk has consequences beyond a fine and suspended sentence.

What we don’t need is to hear magistrates talking in platitudes about some fellow who’s a plumber, so if we take his licence away he can’t make a living. We could also do without defence counsel wringing their hands about how someone’s wife and kids will suffer if he goes to jail. The opposite side of the debate, which has been pitifully underplayed, revolves around the rights of the victims of lawless drivers. If you go around a row of stationary traffic and then jump a red robot from a right-turn only lane – which is what Shezi did – but then actually have a crash and kill someone, you are as surely as guilty of murder as if you put a gun to their head and pulled the trigger?

Of course, the lawyers may argue that you didn’t have direct intent to kill them, but I take the contrary view: you displayed intent by wanton negligence and disregard for the law and well-known data about the consequences of crashes at intersections. Why should we hide murderers behind the “culpable homicide” label just because they used a car instead of a gun? Put a guy away for life for killing someone in a red robot crash and watch the fatality rates come down as people start realising the days of driving how you want are gone…

Likewise for drinking and driving. Why should someone’s livelihood be more important than the rights of society? He should have thought about that before driving drunk. Nor am I overly concerned about his wife and kids. What about the rights of someone else’s wife and kids who die when he smashes into them while blind drunk?

If, on the odd occasion that traffic enforcement actually takes place, we’re not prepared to punish deadly miscreant drivers, we’re sending a message that, as many people have argued, traffic offences are “minor things”.

The truth is, they’re not – they cause more fatalities than guns on a daily basis. And until we have sentences which reflect that reality, it will continue to be socially acceptable to be a repeat traffic offender.


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

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