Shame on you, Mr Ndebele

Sibusiso Ndebele, our esteemed minister of transport, deserves to be hanged, drawn and quartered over his comment that the speed limit should be reduced. It’s just plain stupid!

Okay, enough of the hysterics. Let’s kick off with some facts.

The single most important one, which no one can dispute, is this: too many people die on our roads. And, when it comes to this issue, Ndebele and I agree. In fact, he maintains that the road carnage on our country’s roads is fast reaching a crisis point.

I disagree. We reached a crisis point years ago and chose to ignore it. If in doubt, speak to any one of the tens of thousands of families who have lost a loved one as a result of a road fatality in South Africa.

And what does Ndebele want to do about this? “Escalate the matter to cabinet with the intention of requesting a review of the current legislation governing the speed limits on our roads.” In simple English, reduce the speed limit.

Interestingly enough, Ndebele’s comment comes at a time when the British government is considering raising motorway speed limits to 80 mph (128,747 km/h) “to shorten journey times and help the economy”. According to a recent Daily Mail report, transport secretary Philip Hammond believes that anti-car campaigners have for too long used road safety as a convenient excuse to stymie raising the speed limit on motorways. Hammond believes that a thorough cost-benefit analysis – which takes into account the economic impact – must also be carried out when deciding such matters. The speed limit is currently 70 mph – or 112,654 km/h.

Ndebele made his embarrassingly silly comment at the scene of yet another horrific accident on the N2 between Empangeni and Mtubatuba last month. The accident, involving a minibus taxi and a van towing a trailer, claimed 10 lives. In typical politician fashion, he urged South Africans to “act responsibly to avoid going down in history as having created a grave”.

“This unnecessary loss of lives on a daily basis calls for a serious review of the current status quo. We cannot afford to have this situation continue like this. South Africa is being robbed of its most prized assets: its citizens. Families are losing their loved ones, widows and orphans are being created every minute on our roads,” he noted.

He is, of course, quite right. South Africans are being murdered daily – in their homes and also on our roads. But his speed reduction suggestion (Ndebele wants to reduce the current 120 km/h speed limit to 100 km/h) is nonsensical.

And this is not merely my opinion. It is backed by factual information.

I write this column, having just returned from Germany, where I drove the über- awesome new Actros (more about that in next month’s FOCUS). Naturally, I spent a considerable amount of time on the country’s autobahns, which have no general speed limit (though about 47% of the total length is subject to ditional limits).

According to Wikipedia, Germany’s autobahn network has a total length of about 12 800 km, which ranks as the fourth-longest in the world behind the Interstate Highway System of the United States, the National Trunk Highway System of the People’s Republic of China and the National Highway of India.

But I digress with that snippet of data. The reason why I am mentioning the autobahns is because they are extremely safe. I am not going to bother comparing the accident rate to that of South Africa; that would be silly. So let’s rather compare the accident rate to that of comparable First World countries.

According to statistics collected by the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, there were 2,2 road user fatalities per billion vehicle kilometres on German autobahns in 2008. Neighbouring countries with available data include Belgium (4,2 in 2007), the Netherlands (2,1 in 2009), Denmark (2,5), Austria (4,2), Switzerland (1,2) and France (1,8). Using the same statistic, 4,5 fatalities have occurred in the United States on motorways.

So it’s a fact: the autobahns are safe.

Despite this fact, the politicians over there have also debated introducing a speed limit from time to time. This has been impacted by the bunny huggers who point out that fuel consumption increases with speed. Safety has, of course, also come to the fore. Former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was against the introduction of a speed limit; Germany’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other leading cabinet members have also openly decried such a move.

The German politicians are wiser. Clearly wiser than ours. Their voters would not be happy with the introduction of a speed limit; and the morticians wouldn’t give a hoot because it wouldn’t benefit their trade either.

Precisely the same would occur in South Africa; I honestly don’t believe that lowering the speed limit would save lives. Instead, we need proper policing. We need discipline on the roads. We need attitudes to change.

The autobahn works because of a combination of those factors. Policing is severe (and don’t even contemplate bribing a cop; that’s streng verboten). The German autobahn network is patrolled by unmarked police cars and motorcycles equipped with video cameras; there are more cameras than you see next to the red carpet at the Oscars. Tailgating and following distances are monitored carefully – and the fines are truly hectic. A driver’s licence can even be suspended as a result.

Overtaking on the right (undertaking) is strictly forbidden, except when stuck in traffic jams. Even if the car overtaken is illegally occupying the left-hand lane, it is not an acceptable excuse; in such cases the police will routinely stop and fine both drivers.

It’s also streng verboten to stop on the autobahn. And don’t consider using the “I have run out of fuel” excuse. By law there are petrol stations directly on the autobahn every 50 km. So the German police don’t consider this to be a valid excuse; they will slap you with a fine and may even take away your driver’s licence (for up to six months). If direct danger to life and limb or property results from you stopping on the autobahn, you could even face a prison sentence of up to five years.

If we are going to become serious about saving lives, those are the sort of draconian measures that are required in South Africa.

Not politicians making silly suggestions.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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