JOHANNESBURG - It’s a scene repeated in bars across South Africa every day and night: A man saunters into the establishment, tosses his car keys on the counter and starts drinking an alcoholic beverage.
He’s parked his car in a space nearby, and will be driving it within a few hours.
In South Africa, driving after consuming just two beers is illegal.
But, says Caro Smit of the non-profit South Africans against Drunk Driving, this isn’t deterring the nation’s millions of dedicated drunk drivers.
“South Africa unfortunately has a great culture of drinking and driving; they [citizens] seem to think it is their right. There is a culture of being proud of being so drunk or not remembering where you parked your car or how you got home,” she says.
According to the World Health Organization’s Global Report on Road Safety 2015, South Africa has the highest rate of alcohol-related road deaths in the world.
Using data provided by the government, the WHO report says alcohol is a factor in almost 60 percent of all road fatalities in the country.
Son killed by drunk driver
Ten years ago Smit was an alcohol and drug educator in schools. A big part of her job was warning young people against driving under the influence of liquor.
“And then unfortunately my own son, Chas, was killed by a drink driver in 2005. It was the most horrific time in my life, but I had to move on,” Smit recalls.
She now campaigns for better enforcement of the country’s laws against drunk driving.
“We’ve got to get the person in court quickly, we’ve got to get [the] justice [department] to accept that it is a crime, and to implement the laws that are there. We’ve got very good laws, we’re just not implementing them,” says Smit.
South African traffic police use breathalyzers to test drivers. If the devices suggest a driver has been drinking, police take the driver into custody and then to a testing center for a nurse to draw a blood sample.
Should the sample contain more than 0.05 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, the suspect will be charged with driving under the influence and given a court date.
If found guilty of DUI, suspects can have their driver's license suspended and be fined thousands of rand. Drunk drivers convicted of causing a death can face prison terms and fines of up to 180,000 rand (almost $12,000).
This is how the law should take its course in South Africa. But more often than not it doesn’t, says Howard Dembovsky, chairman of the Justice Project, an NGO that monitors South Africa’s traffic sector and road laws.
He says: “We have the national Department of Transport telling the World Health Organization that 58 percent of road fatalities in South Africa involve alcohol. And yet we don’t have proper alcohol (law) enforcement.”
The WHO says laws to prevent drink driving are poorly enforced in South Africa and gives the country a score of four out of 10 for this aspect in its report.
Botched investigations, police corruption
Surrounded by the din of wailing sirens at the headquarters of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department, senior traffic official Superintendent Edna Mamonyane says police are not lenient on intoxicated drivers.
“From the police side, we are doing the best we can to stop drunk driving,” she insists.
Mamonyane explains that officers launch “regular” operations, mostly in the form of roadblocks, to arrest people for drinking and driving.
Smit says this isn’t enough to prevent it.
“There is a lot of lip service saying, ‘We want to stop it’ and yet they’re not using internationally accepted best practices in stopping it, like testing 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year and not just at Christmas or Easter time.”
According to Justice Project research, only six percent of the thousands of people arrested annually for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol are ever convicted.
Dembovsky says this is because of factors like botched investigations and police corruption, with officers accepting bribes from suspects and their relatives to “lose the docket” and “squash the case” so that it never gets to court.
In the rare cases that drunk drivers are convicted, says Smit, the results are mostly disappointing, and even motorists who have injured and killed people escape long jail sentences.
“Most don’t spend any time in prison at all,” she says.
Lessons from ‘Down Under’
Smit believes there would be much less drunk driving in South Africa if it became stigmatized, as in Australia, for example.
Twenty years ago, she says, many Australians didn’t think driving under the influence was a crime.
Then the Australian government ordered the police to test people at all hours of the day and night, and to take strong action against drunk drivers, like confiscating their licenses.
“What people then started to do was start saying to their friends, ‘Please don’t drink and drive tonight, you’re going to get a criminal record or you’re going to be put in jail, or you’ll get a big fine.’ And so behavior changed (in Australia) because of the repercussions of the law actually tightening up,” says Smit.
Since 1997, the Australian authorities have tested tens of millions of motorists for driving under the influence, and arrests for the offense are relatively rare in comparison with the past.
Perhaps more meaningfully, says Smit, is that Australia now has a road death ratio of less than five people per 100,000, down from almost 10 in 1997.
Australia’s road accident death toll was just over 1,200 last year - less than one-tenth of the number who died on South African roads.
Smit urges South Africa to follow the same path as Australia.
But, as Dembovsky says, if that strategy was to work in South Africa, the government would have to introduce several radical reforms, including ending “endemic” police corruption and transforming its testing, justice and prison systems.
There’s no sign of this happening anytime soon, he says, and the “slaughter” on South African roads because of driving under the influence will continue for the foreseeable future.