The S-word

The S-word

South Africa’s coach and bus industry has a rich history, and for many years has made a vital contribution to the economic and social growth of the country. But, as JACO DE KLERK reports, it has a dark side as well.

 

Bus operators continue to provide mobility to millions of South Africans who are reliant on public transport – such as school learners, employees on their way to work, and individuals seeking access to hospitals and other services. Despite this contribution to society, during the past decade the industry has become notorious for a series of bus crashes which have left both tourists and locals dead and injured.

One of the most infamous was an accident in September 1999, in which 26 elderly British tourists died when the Springbok Atlas bus they were travelling in overturned on the Long Tom Pass outside Lydenburg, apparently after suffering brake failure. This misfortune also claimed the life of their South African guide, while many other Britons were injured.

The accident marked the fifth fatal bus crash in a week, after which the South African government vowed to take measures to tackle the problem and reduce accidents. Has any progress been made since then?

The National Department of Transport (NDoT) identified, as part of the “Road to Safety Strategy 2001 to 2005”, a need for a policy which regulated certain operational safety issues for all bus, taxi and coach operators. The aim was to ensure that passengers are conveyed in a safe, reliable and cost effective manner.

This subsequently gave way to the development of a management system for the bus and coach industry, named SANS 10399 (South African National Standard – Quality Management Systems: Requirements for Bus Operators). It was the intention of NDoT to create a platform on which transport operators could base their quality policies, lifting the standard of all existing policies at that time.

The code ensured that bus operators gave constant attention to the roadworthiness of their buses and therefore reduced, in part, the number of accidents attributed to unroadworthy vehicles.

This policy has also sparked co-operation between the bus industry and government in setting the technical standards for all aspects of bus construction and component supply. Some of these standards include specifications regarding roll-over protection built into buses since 2000, and improved seat construction and anchorage. All top tour operators started using on-board computers and retarder systems to control bus speeds in downhill situations. These standards are monitored and updated, based on findings from accident investigations.

Another skeleton in South Africa’s road safety closet is the notorious Saulspoort Dam accident in May 2003, in which 51 COSATU members, en route to May Day celebrations, died when their bus drove into the dam near Bethlehem in the Free State. The driver became lost at night and accidentally turned onto an unlit gravel path which led onto a jetty and into the dam. The driver was apparently speeding, which made it impossible for him to stop in time. This, in part, led to the reduction of the speed limit applicable to buses.

The Southern African Bus Operators’ Association (SABOA) was instrumental in motivating and insisting on the 100 km/h speed limit for public transport operators. The organisation has become respected as the voice of the bus industry and represents its members at a national and provincial government level. It also fulfils a “watchdog” function regarding strategy and legislation.

One of SABOA’s achievements on the safety front was the phasing in of reflective tape over a two-year period, beginning in 2004, to increase bus visibility on the road. The phasing out of roof racks also improved safety, as experience showed that roof-mounted luggage often turned into projectiles during accidents, causing additional injuries. SABOA has also helped address fraud and corruption at testing stations, which reduced the number of unroadworthy buses on South African roads.

The organisation played a vital role in making major passenger liability insurance compulsory for permit holders (now known as operating license holders), which gave passengers a means to claim compensation in the event of an accident. Many SABOA members have also adopted the (then voluntary) six monthly Road Worthy Certificate (RWC) process. This renewal period is now obligatory for bus operators.

The latest approach to road safety by the Minister of Transport, Sibusiso Ndebele, is a plan to reduce South Africa’s national speed limit from 120 to 100 km/h for all motor vehicles, which will inevitably lead to the further reduction of the speed limit for the transport industry. “There are increasing calls and signs that something drastic needs to be done to address the current situation,” says Ndebele. “Studies conducted in other countries – such as Australia, where the speed limit is 110 km/h – indicate that a reduction in speed limit can save lives.”

As a response, the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists (SAGMJ) has issued a statement appealing to the Minister not only to reconsider the reduction in speed limits, but to take urgent steps to improve safety on South African roads. “It does not require scientific research to see that South Africa’s appalling road safety record is directly attributable to the authorities’ ill-conceived law enforcement practices,” the Guild said. The SAGMJ stated that violations of fundamental road rules should be the authorities’ top priority.

Accidents still plague our roads, despite the measures taken to improve safety in the coach and bus industry. It would seem that the government and organisations like SABOA will have to work even more closely together to enhance road safety in our country.

Only the future will tell if this industry is a tool for positive economic growth, or instead a grim reaper of innocent road users.

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