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January 29, 2013

South Africa Struggles to Reduce Road Fatalities

by Emilie Iob

After yet another deadly holiday season on South Africa’s roads, the government is calling on citizens to do more to prevent accidents - especially as more than half the accidents were linked to alcohol use.  The country ranks among the worst in the world in highway safety, with 40 people dying every day in road accidents.

Driving while intoxicated

It's an ordinary Friday night in Soweto, a township in the south of Johannesburg. The officers in charge of taking blood samples to measure alcohol levels can barely keep up with the influx of seemingly intoxicated people arriving at the station.  At a nearby roadblock, 15 people were arrested in less than two hours for driving under the influence.

The national Road Traffic Management Corporation says there were 1,279 road deaths between December 1 and January 1 - citing drunk driving as the main cause.  And it says 40 percent of the fatalities involved pedestrians who were walking on the road while drunk.

Every year, 14 000 people die on the road in South Africa.  The World Health Organization says the country ranks among the world's worst in road safety.

Gary Ronald, of the Automobile Association of South Africa, says the government must do a better job to educate the public.

"More information, more education, not just at schools. It has to be in the general public space. And we certainly don't get that. I would for one would really like to see a road safety program education, information, on all channels of media, every single day. That has not happened. Not for the last 20 years it has not happened," he said.

Unsafe driving conditions

Alcohol is not the only threat on the roads here.

On one main road linking a township to the city center, hundreds of people cycle to work every day, weaving between the cars.  As more and more South Africans become affluent enough to drive their own cars, there is a difficult co-existence between cyclists and autos on clogged roads.  

The South African government is not ignoring the problems.  In 2011, it launched a national campaign to cut the number of road fatalities in half by 2020.  

Enforcement, alleged corruption

Minister of Transport Ben Martins says one element in the campaign is to tackle police corruption, which allows unsafe and unlicensed drivers and their cars to stay on the road.  Motorists here can often walk away free from a traffic offense by paying bribes.

"There are certain corrupt officials who would engage in the practice of  issuing or selling illegal licenses," Martins said. "So we are cracking down on that."

Martins says other problems include speeding, dangerous driving practices, failure to wear seatbelts and unroadworthy vehicles.