Trucks take too many lives

Trucks take too many lives

Trucks cause accidents on a daily basis – by losing loads, by breaking down in the middle of the road and due to driver fatigue. More often than not, negligence is to blame – and it’s a poor excuse for lives lost. CLAIRE RENCKEN investigates this careless, needless phenomenon and speaks to some people who have been affected by it.

 

It is surprising how many people have been directly, or indirectly, affected by accidents such as these. One such person is Dr Nick Botoulas, orthopaedic surgeon at the Life Fourways Hospital. During the time that he flew on trauma helicopters, he watched several patients die.

”I remember the one accident so clearly,” he recalls. “I arrived on the scene and there was this young man, Jacques, literally hanging out of the windscreen of his truck, trapped from the waist down. He asked me to please help him, as he had a wife and young child back in Durban who he wanted to get home to. But, as the emergency workers cut him free, he died on the scene. All because there had been an old broken down truck left abandoned in the middle of the highway overnight; no hazard lights, nothing. Jacques had driven into the back of it with his truck.” What an unnecessary waste of a young life.

Sadly this is a phenomenon we see all too often on South African roads; broken down trucks causing accidents or traffic delays kilometres long. Why? “A large percentage of the trucks on our roads aren’t roadworthy,” says Botoulas. “They’re often not properly maintained because some transport operators try to cut costs.” And that’s just one facet of the problem. Unsecured or inadequately secured loads cause far too many accidents. Botoulas is passionate about the fact that more stringent safety measures should be put in place.

He says: “Sometimes, loads aren’t even properly covered. I was involved in an accident where a brick flew off the back of a passing truck and hit my car tyre, causing a blow out. I was incredibly lucky – that brick was like a missile – if it had come through my windscreen and hit me, it could have killed me. My car spun around and I came to a standstill in the emergency lane facing the oncoming traffic. I had been travelling in the middle lane on the highway, doing about 120 kilometres per hour, when an Ocon brick truck flew past me in the fast lane – at about 160 kilometres per hour! The driver didn’t even stop after causing the accident.”

Another victim of a similar accident was Johannesburg-based recruitment specialist Lisa Fluxman. “I was a sales rep at the time and I was driving in the fast lane on the N1 towards Alberton. I was just past the Maraisburg turn-off when a five-tonne drop-side vehicle, laden with furniture, pulled in front of me. The driver of the vehicle was doing at least 120 kilometres per hour. I was watching the vehicle very closely as its load seemed rather badly balanced and was tied on only with a plastic rope. I was convinced it was also loaded too high.

“I decided to move out the fast lane but the traffic did not allow for it. Just then, I noticed the rope snapping – it all seemed to be happening in slow motion. I realised that the furniture was about to come off. I could not move into the left lane because of the traffic, and if I had moved right I would have hit a ditch and barrier. The furniture came down at an incredible speed and although I had slowed down as much as I could, I had no choice but to hold on to the steering wheel as tightly as I could, and take the impact.

“Before I knew it, my car was mounted on top of furniture and more was on my bonnet – I could not see out of my windscreen. The driver only noticed what had happened and stopped about two kilometres on! Several cars stopped to help move the furniture off my car and they managed to get my car off the furniture which was under it. At the time I felt absolutely fine and, as my car started up, I swopped details with the driver and carried on so as to not to be late for my meeting. I was obviously in shock, but somehow got to Alberton in the car. I was incredibly lucky that I was not badly injured. To this day I still can’t figure out how all I had was mild whiplash, a few bruises and an aching body.”

The major damage was, however, to Fluxman’s car – a Toyota Conquest – which at the time was only two weeks old and had less than 5 000 km on the clock. “The bonnet was badly damaged but the undercarriage was even worse – the chassis was bent so badly that the workshop manager could not believe I had even managed to drive the car. The steering and steering column and the exhaust system were also damaged. The whole undercarriage needed repairs. My car was never the same again. My insurance company covered everything in full and reimbursed me for my excess. The driver of the truck and the transport company were never held liable and there were no legal implications for them either. I never heard from them again,” she recalls.

Similarly, Botoulas was appalled by Ocon’s reaction when he called them after his accident. He got the blasé response “just claim from your insurance.” It seems no one is held accountable. And because of our legal system, the other party involved either doesn’t have the financial means or the energy to take action against the transport operator. And so they get away with it, and the problem is perpetuated.

I asked Elsa Jordaan, partner in Webber Wentzel’s insurance, shipping and transport practice, for her legal take on the issue of liability. She says: “The circumstances of each particular case should be considered in detail to determine who may be held legally liable for an accident of this nature.

“In the event that a load is dislodged from the trailer of a truck and a motor vehicle sustains damage as a result, a civil action for damages can, potentially, be brought against the driver of the vehicle and his employer (in the event that it can be shown that the driver acted within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident).

“It is of course important to ascertain why the load dislodged, as this may have an impact on whether either the driver or his employer will be held liable for the damage caused. In the event that a driver or passenger of a motor vehicle sustained injuries as a result of the accident, this claim should be lodged with the Road Accident Fund.”

Legalities aside, these accounts raise several other questions. Why is there not better policing of trucks? Why aren’t loads properly secured and covered? Why do drivers have this careless attitude, and why are they not properly trained?

Botoulas continues: “This is such a Third World mentality. My brother-in-law runs a transport company overseas and he says that by European standards, a large percentage of trucks on South African roads wouldn’t even be considered roadworthy. And safety features (such as side bars) to prevent vehicles being able to slide under trucks, often leaving drivers decapitated, would be mandatory. They also have dedicated truck lanes, and trucks are not allowed on the roads during peak hour traffic.”

These are things that should be seriously considered in this country – even if they are instituted on a trial basis, for a month or two, to see if they work. Furthermore, transport operators should have dedicated safety officers who check for overloading and ensure that the trucks are safe to put back on the roads.

Botoulas adds: “Perhaps, after a certain number of kilometres, trucks should be pulled off and everything should be checked before they are allowed back on the road. Just like helicopters – they are grounded after a certain number of hours until a safety officer from the Civil Aviation Authority clears them for further use. Allowing a sub-standard, or overloaded truck, or one with a poorly secured load, on the roads, is like wielding a lethal weapon. And the drivers are often oblivious to the risks due to insufficient training. They’re also usually put under pressure to deliver their cargo on time, so they speed and don’t allow enough reaction time to stop in the event of an accident.”

If steps aren’t taken to reduce the number of accidents of this nature, the carnage on our roads will continue. For now, motorists will keep holding their breath every time they pass a truck.

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