Facing the facts

As South Africa comes out of the festive (December/January) holiday season and gets back to work, we tally the numbers of deaths that have taken place over the period. It is with morbid fascination that we eye the headlines and watch the nightly news reports as the number of deaths climb ever-higher during this summer season.

As of 9 January 2013 the number of fatalities from road accidents nationwide during the festive season is hovering somewhere between 1300 and 1500 people – with final numbers yet to be confirmed. South Africa’s minister of Transport, Dikobe Ben Martins will announce the preliminary statistics in KwaZulu-Natal tomorrow (10 January 2013).
Undoubtedly these numbers will be followed by public outrage and numerous outbursts of shock and horror and continued lecturing by politicians that South Africa’s roads must be made safer. The Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) have already blamed road users for the death toll experienced this season.
 The real problem with road safety in South Africa is, however, not the festive season. It is all year round.

While we gasp at the numbers spewed forth by the various media outlets during the festive period, we blindly stumble about on the roads the rest of the year. What we do not realise is that the roads in this country are actually safer during the festive season than at virtually any other point in the year – although this is cold comfort for anyone who has lost people important to them in fatal road accidents.

Here are the numbers according to the RTMC Road Traffic Report (for 2009 which includes figures for 2007 and 2008):

December 2007 – 1523
December 2008 – 1333

December 2009 – 1398

In March, April, June, July and September of 2007 more than 1300 people died on the road in each of those months.

In 2008, only July saw more than 1300 people killed in accidents – with January and February of that year recording two consecutive months of fatalities lower than 1000 people per month.
In 2009 the only time the death toll exceeded 1300 people was in December, with every month prior to that seeing fewer than 1280 people killed. February of 2009 also saw the lowest number of fatalities for any month in the three-year period – with a figure of 787 deaths.
With numbers like this, you are most likely wondering how I can state that the roads are safer during the festive period when the number of deaths recorded are the highest of any month.
Quite simply, the number of vehicles on the road during the festive season are dramatically higher than at any other point during the year. If the trend created during the preceding months of each year is taken into account, then the local death toll should be double or even triple the numbers we are seeing.

While the number of vehicles available to South Africans to use during the festive period is no different from any other point in the year – 9 797 413 in total as of November 2010 – the number of them simultaneously using the same stretch of road is far greater. Also, while many vehicles are used to commute to and from work (relatively short distances) the rest of the year, during the festive season they are used to cover long distances to holiday destinations.

All of these factors – which include driver fatigue, strain on vehicles, congestion on the roads – combined with high summer season temperatures and other environmental considerations mean the roads are actually safer than they would be during off-season periods.

What is also interesting about this is that the roads used to reach holiday destinations have speed limits much higher than are found in urban areas – barring freeways. So, while there is much more traffic and it is moving at much higher speeds than the urban 60 km/h, there are fewer fatalities than we should expect under the circumstances.
This tells me that while the efforts made by traffic authorities during the festive season are not enough, they are yielding results we are simply not aware of as we don’t personally keep a running tally of fatal road accidents all year round.

On average it would appear that around 40 people die on SA’s roads every day while during the festive season this figures climbs to around 50. Take the information regarding the vastly increased number of road users into account and the increase is not that high by comparison to the preceding 11 months.

Clearly something is being done better during the summer holidays in terms of road safety, even if it is not enough. What needs to happen though is that these efforts need to be stepped up and applied throughout the year. 
The RTMC have stated their goal is to halve the festive season death toll by 2015 – two years from now – but I can’t help thinking that the best way to do that is by focusing on road safety the other 11 months of the year.

Author: Morné Condon

Automotive journalist in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, following new models, old cars, car clubs and motorsport. My interests are not restricted to the automotive environment, although this is where I am mostly to be found.

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