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Majority of Traffic Fatalities in South Africa Tied to Drunken Driving

Brenda Caplen holds a photo of her son, Stuart (far left in photograph), who was killed in a collision in which alcohol was a deemed major causal factor. (D. Taylor/VOA)

This is the fifth story in a series on road chaos in South Africa.

On Dec. 6, 2005, Brenda Caplen was visiting her brother in Abu Dhabi.

She was restless, "tossing and turning" in bed.

"I knew something was wrong. I had this terrible feeling; I didn't sleep the whole night," she remembers.

The next morning, Caplen's brother called her to the phone. The person on the line had news that put the businesswoman on the next flight back to Johannesburg.

"I don't remember too much about the day but it was really the worst day of my life," she says.

Caplen's son, Stuart, had been partying in 7th Street, Melville. The strip of nightclubs and bars is popular, especially with students taking advantage of offers like "buy one drink, get one free."

After the night's fun, Stuart accepted a lift home with a friend.

Stuart Caplen was one of the many victims of drinking and driving in South Africa. (D. Taylor/VOA)
Stuart Caplen was one of the many victims of drinking and driving in South Africa. (D. Taylor/VOA)

Not far from the Caplens' home, the car screeched around a corner and the driver lost control.

"He was inexperienced, went over a bump, the car came off the ground and I think he hit the brakes as he hit the ground. That caused the car to go into a skid. Stuart was in the passenger side of the front and the car spun into a tree and he was killed instantly. He took the whole impact on his head," the mother says.

‘Too late’ to test driver

Brenda Caplen describes the aftermath of the collision, as gleaned from the police, as follows: "The boy who was driving was covered in cuts and the girl who was in the car with them was unconscious. The driver told the police that she had been driving, so they didn't bother to test him for alcohol. [The girl] came around the next day and told everybody she wasn't driving, and then he apologized. But by that stage, it was too late to determine his blood alcohol level at the time of the accident."

Stuart, a tall, handsome young man with blonde hair and bright blue eyes, died a month short of his 20th birthday.

"Stu was very outgoing, full of fun," Caplen says softly. "All his friends used to say to me that he lived life at a pace of 110 percent. A very warm, loving child. Being my oldest son, I had a particular bond with him."

The Justice Project, an NGO that monitors South Africa's traffic sector, says road crashes kill more than 20,000 people every year in the country.

According to the government, driving while under the influence of alcohol is a factor in almost 60 percent of road deaths.

In South Africa, drinking just two beers puts a person over the legal limit to drive.

Caplen says people who were at the party in Melville told her that Stuart's friend had consumed much more alcohol than this on the night of the accident.

She adds that when the circumstances of the crash became clear, and the truth about the driver's deception emerged, his friends ostracized him.

"I think they just weren't happy with the way he handled it,” Caplen says. “But then if he had handled it the right way he might have ended up in jail, so …"

‘Spiritual imprisonment’

In contrast with many other victims of drunken drivers, Caplen says she's never desired any punishment for the man who was driving the vehicle in which her son died.

She says she feels sorry for him, because he escaped being jailed, but he'll never be free of "spiritual imprisonment."

"That boy's life has been really destroyed, in many ways worse than ours. … Yes, we have to live with the tragedy, [but] he has to live with the guilt [for the rest of his life]. … And I think that's just a horrible thing for anybody," Caplen says.

But her son's death still haunts her, and she lives with the consequences.

"It created quite a lot of problems for me in the future, like I didn't want to travel because I didn't want to leave my other kids; I had this horrible feeling that if I left them, something [bad] would happen."

Caplen says this feeling still "rises" in her at times. She also often thinks of the kind of man her son would have become, if he'd lived.

But, like so many other South Africans, Stuart Caplen died in a twisted wreck of metal and broken glass … speed and driving under the influence of liquor again proving to be a potent, tragic combination.