South Africans are really a proud nation and there is so much that we have achieved over the years which puts us at the fore-front of either world firsts or best practice.
Unfortunately, this includes one of the highest road fatality and injury rates in the world - something definitely not to be proud of.
When one considers that during 2008, 14 500 people died on our roads (according to the Department of Transport) in approximately 900 000 crashes at a cost to the economy of R52 billion - the risk of being involved in a crash as a driver is at a ratio of 1:10. Probably one of the highest probability rates in the world too!!
The vulnerable road user, and here we include pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and certain classes of passengers, is most at risk of injury or death when venturing onto our roads. Pedestrians account for about 40% of all fatalities and in certain metropolitan areas and cities, facilities are being set aside for safe walking and cycling where conflict with traffic has been minimized.
However this is not the case with passengers on goods vehicles. Despite a change in legislation which sought to separate goods (including tools, equipment, etc.) from passengers in the goods compartment to prevent injury while being transported, very little has changed. Workers in general are still transported on the back of open vehicles with little or no protection from the elements, let alone a vehicle crash.
Legislative changes have, at best, been a poor compromise to date.
One may well ask how do we compare with other countries? Not very well I’m afraid. Most countries in the developed world have banned the practice outright. Workers in countries such as the UK and Italy for example must be transported in closed vehicles - hence the development of larger panel vans which can accommodate the needs of industry.
Africa on the other hand is a completely different kettle of fish. Mobility in any shape or form is extremely valuable and prosperity is inescapably linked to it. A bicycle is better than walking and a car represents serious wealth - not for the intrinsic value, but rather for the mobility and access to services it represents.
And yet, this is where the dilemma begins - South Africa is a developing country with so many aspects already entrenched in the developed world. Many of our industry standards are on a par or even better than the international community and yet we are also on the other end of the spectrum, especially when it comes to safety in our communities. What does one do when your choices are limited?
In the urban context, transport options are much wider and yet the mindset of industry remains entrenched with the view that “its always been done that way so why change?”.
A typical example of “alternative vehicle use” is the taxi industry which regularly adapts goods vehicles (mostly panel vans) into passenger carrying vehicles by simply adding seats - without considering the safety standards such a conversion demands. Similarly, conversions to vehicles used on mining property such as seats with seatbelts on the back of LDV’s because of company policy are also perhaps not as safe as implied.
The additional cost to industry if the EU model of a total ban on passengers on open goods vehicles is brought into South Africa would mean that many SMME businesses would simply not be able to afford the change if it meant buying new vehicles to accommodate legislative change. And yet something has to be done to make it safer for passengers being transported this way.
The rural context is perhaps even more significant as people will use any form of transport to get to work, shops, schools or hospital - regardless of the personal risk they expose themselves to. As far as the dangers are concerned, the record speaks for itself. Almost weekly there are reports of school children or workers being injured or killed in roll-over crashes involving LDV’s, trucks or trailers. One would’ve thought that by now, action would have been taken to prevent these sorts of tragedies from happening.
So let’s look at what the regulations say…
Regulation 247 of the NRTA 93/1996 permits the conveying of passengers in the goods compartment of a vehicle provided that the sides of the vehicle are enclosed to a height of at least 350mm above the seating surface or 900mm above the surface on which the person is standing. Effectively this means that only minimal side protection is offered and there is no need for a roof covering at all.
As noted earlier, “no person shall be conveyed in the goods compartment together with any tools or goods, except their personal effects, unless that portion in which such persons are being conveyed is separated by means of a partition from the portion in which goods such are conveyed.”
Interestingly enough, farmers have received a special exemption from Regulation 247 and therefore can use open flatbed trailers to transport people.
Regulation 250 makes it quite clear that any person conveyed in the goods compartment of a vehicle may not pay for such transportation.
So we have a situation where the authorities know the problem exists, industry in general does not want to change the current practice and people will continue to get hurt or killed regardless.
Perhaps a possible solution would be to permit carrying passengers on open vehicles under certain circumstances - for instance where the maximum speed of the vehicle is restricted to 40kmh which, in effect, describes a farm tractor. Anything over 40kmh would be banned completely.
Understandably there will be resistance to change, but we have to consider the person who may not have a choice but to make use of such transport, or who by the very nature of his employment is forced to travel in this manner. I believe that should various legislations be closely examined, let alone our Constitution, then most if not all transporters would be guilty of purposely putting passengers on open vehicles directly in harms’ way.
If we are to take safety seriously in this country, and I believe that many of us do, some hard and perhaps unpopular decisions need to be made and implemented. We know what the problems are and what the consequence of inaction will be. How many more lives need to be lost before we act?