Truck safety grim two years after Pinetown

It was rush hour on September 5, 2013. 23 Year-old Swazi, Sanele Goodness May, was at the wheel of an articulated truck heading down Fields Hill towards Richmond Road in Pinetown. Were the vehicle's brakes faulty? Did May fall asleep? Miss a gear? Mishandle the vehicle and burn out the brakes? It has never been conclusively established what went wrong that evening.

The truck May was driving burst through the red traffic light at the bottom of the Richmond off-ramp at a speed which may have been in excess of 120 km/h, sweeping away vehicles like bits of straw. 22 People were killed outright. Two more died in hospital. May himself survived and was later sentenced to eight years in prison.

The crash, caught on a dashcam and security cameras, was replayed thousands of times as the video clips spread across the internet. There were waves of outrage and calls for action. So what, if anything, has changed, two years after Pinetown?

One of the facts to emerge from the court proceedings was that May's driving licence was not valid. This was not an isolated case either - licensing corruption has made the issuing of fake licences almost endemic, and the AA's position on the issue is one of increasing concern over whether it is likely that the decline can be reversed. We are not persuaded that meaningful progress has been made combating licensing corruption in the past two years. And with the near-impossibility of distinguishing a fake licence from a real one once it has been captured on e-Natis, it is likely that another transport company is, as we speak, hiring a driver who will hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.. 

Another issue which has been static for two years is the question of the use of Fields Hill by heavy vehicles wishing to avoid the tolls at Marianhill. The AA has, throughout the Gauteng e-tolls saga, repeatedly warned of the risks of forcing traffic onto back roads unsuitable for heavy transport vehicles by tolling major arterials. We must repeat our stance that roads funding should come from taxation sources with negligible collection costs, and that South Africans should be able to enjoy unfettered passage on all its roads, with heavy vehicles encouraged to use the safest routes.

Political reaction to the tragedy included proposals to make new laws, such as the relatively benign suggestion to ban trucks from certain back roads over peak hours. That subsequently morphed into a draconian and unworkable proposal by the Department of Transport to ban all trucks from all roads for a total of six hours a day. Accustomed as we are to relatively conservative lawmaking from the DoT, this proposal seemed a vast over-reaction and was, in our view, tabled without being thoroughly thought through. From the AA's standpoint, the problem is not that the trucks are on the roads, but what they do on the roads, and the condition in which they are allowed onto the roads. Until driver competence and roadworthiness are addressed, simply herding trucks off the road during certain hours is unlikely to bring respite during the rest of the day.

Of course, severe pile-ups involving trucks are not unique to South Africa. A major truck crash anywhere around the globe usually makes world headlines, and bus crashes in Asia's mountainous regions are reported with regrettable frequency. But what made the Pinetown crash different was its violence, recorded vividly on video, and the high fatality count. A truck crash in Alberton late last year saw numerous vehicles destroyed, with four fatalities. But even though it blocked an entire freeway for several hours and caused traffic chaos through much of Southern Johannesburg, it still did not elicit the shock of watching the rapier-swift destruction of the Pinetown crash.

If we are to prevent another 'Pinetown' we need to revisit the ways we control heavy vehicle condition and routing, and how we train and certify drivers who take the wheel of vehicles which can weigh more than fifty cars. For the families of the Pinetown victims, it would be respectful of government, through firm action, to show that the deaths of their loved ones contributed, in a way, to preventing such a tragedy befalling others. 

The AA therefore calls on the Department of Transport to urgently compile a strategy to combat the numerous safety failings of the heavy transport industry. As the days, months and years continue to tick away from September 5, 2013, clarity and shock will eventually moderate to vagueness and resignation, and urgency will ebb away. Something must be done. Before we forget.

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