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The real reason South Africa isn’t changing its speed limits

Despite nearly a decade of hearing promises that the South African government will adjust, attempt to adjust, or consider adjusting the country’s speed limits with an aim of reducing the incredibly high mortality rate on the roads, nothing has yet changed, and it’s unlikely that anything will.

Rob Handfield-Jones, CEO of advanced driving company Driving.co.za, says the current road rules and accompanying mayhem are a way of making money for the government, and that it not only applies to speed limits, but all the outdated and narrow-minded laws that are still burdening the average motorist.

The ruling party is acutely aware that if it does step in to address any of these pressing issues, it stands to lose millions of rands every year that have been earmarked for lining the pockets of powerful politicians, which is why it’s using all its might to maintain the chaos that is the current status quo.

Speed limits, in fact, don’t need to be changed

According to Handfield-Jones, there is no evidence that speed is in any way causative to South Africa’s road safety woes.

“South Africa’s road fatality rate fell by half from 1985 to 1998, despite generous speed limits which were only thinly enforced,” he said. “However, the fatality rate did subsequently double from 1998 to 2006, despite a five-fold increase in speed prosecution over those eight years!”

Speed only becomes a risk factor when it is inappropriate for the environment and traffic pattern, and is not dangerous in and of itself.

In 2020 and 2021, “speed too high for circumstances” was a contributing factor in just 9% of fatal crashes, revealed data from the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC).

“Speed is therefore NOT a contributor to 91% of fatal crashes, but it consumes a disproportionate amount of oxygen in road safety discussions because it sounds so sexy and is so easy to measure,” said Handfield-Jones.

“The most we can say about speed prosecution in South Africa is that it increases road death risk by diverting enforcement resources away from violations which actually kill people.”

By far the majority of drivers who exceed the speed limit do so without causing any danger because there was little danger to begin with. General speed limits were fairly arbitrary when initially selected many decades ago, with motorists themselves primarily the selectors via the “85th-percentile rule.”

Since then, active and passive safety technologies as well as handling and braking performance of the average vehicle have improved exponentially, too, meaning that what was once a highly -dangerous speed during a collision is now objectively far safer.

“So, speed is not the issue it is alleged to be,” said Handfield-Jones.

“South Africa would do well to overcome its obsession with technical speed limit infringements and instead prosecute dangerous driving aggressively. This would save countless lives. The only purpose served by technical speed limit prosecution as presently conducted in South Africa is revenue generation.”

This statement is supported by a study performed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in the 1990s, headed by Dr. Christo van As and often referred to as the “Van As Report.”

The report concluded that South Africa’s speed limits were appropriate, but should be considered scientifically whenever change was contemplated.

“This didn’t sit well at a time when government was planning to import Australia’s Victoria Project messaging and rebrand it as the Arrive Alive project, with the headline slogan ‘Don’t fool yourself, speed kills!’,” said Handfield-Jones.

“The last thing government wanted was credible research which undermined this fiction by pointing out that the country’s speed limits were appropriate and there was no evidence that motorists were disregarding them to an extent which would justify the moral panic of the Arrive Alive campaign.”

At the time, the authorities also ignored the Van As Report’s recommendation to cap speed limits for public transport vehicles like buses at 100km/h based on international best practices.

Then in 1999, a bus crash on the Long Tom Pass in Mpumalanga claimed the lives of 27 tourists, and while the cause thereof was determined to be driver incompetence, government continued to blame it on speed.

In 2002, however, it finally enacted a 100km/h limit for public transport vehicles, inadvertently providing a measuring point to gauge what effect this change really had.

“From 2004 to 2005, the number of fatal bus crashes increased by 76% and the number of fatalities increased by 594%, and from 2005 to 2006, the fatality rate for buses rose by 30%,” said Handfield-Jones.

“So, not only was speed not the cause of the 1999 bus crash, reducing bus top speeds by 20km/h had no effect on fatality rates; the opposite, in fact!”

While remnants of the Van As Report can still be found online, tracking down the document itself is rather difficult. Experts say that it has been buried as far away from the public eye as possible, but whoever would have done such a thing, and for what reason they may have done it for, remains unclear to this day.

South Africa’s top-line road safety data produced in annual bundles by the Road Traffic Management Corporation also gives no support to speed prosecution as a road safety strategy, according to Handfield-Jones.

The number of speeding fines issued per annum since 1998 has increased twelve-fold, while simultaneously, fatalities as a result of traffic accidents doubled between 1998 and 2006, and then doubled again since, alluding once more that there is a faint, if any, connection between speed and deadly car crashes.

Misguided attempts

In previous gazettes, speeches, and announcements, government noted that it aims to reduce speed limits across the board by 10km/h.

Slashing restrictions for urban roads, which are generally set at 60km/h, to 50km/h would undoubtedly be beneficial; but doing so on trunk roads and freeways would not, as it would only reduce travel time for motorists without addressing dangerous driving habits.

This inability to consider speed limits for each type of road separately has meant that nothing has been done about any of them.

Another possible reason for the delayed implementation is the sheer cost of replacing road signs across the country and correcting legislation to reflect the new limits.

“Urban speed limits alone would be less problematic to change – this could be done by changing the general speed limit and clearly demarcating the urban limit geography by road signs, as is done in other countries where ‘city limits’ signs clearly indicate the start and end of municipal applicability of laws,” said Handfield-Jones.

“If urban regions were clearly signposted, then the speed limits within them would be the general speed limit for that type of road unless signed otherwise, and we could do away with the current forest of 60 signs, which are mostly superfluous in terms of national legislation.”

With its diminishing voter base, the ruling party may also be trying to avoid public backlash wherever possible by keeping speed restrictions as is.

It faced fierce retaliation when it attempted to reduce blood-alcohol limits to zero in 2021, so much so that the minister of transport at the time turned his back on his own peers and didn’t even endorse the idea, and the so-called initiative was eventually brushed under the rug with nothing to come of it.

Between lives and money, money wins

It has been widely reported that most municipalities derive 50% or more of their revenue from traffic fines, and all metros in the country openly budget for fine revenue, the majority of which comes from motorists breaking the law.

“The problem with actually budgeting for fines, instead of regarding them as extraordinary and unexpected revenue, is that one creates an expectation that traffic violations will persist, rather than an ambition to reduce or eliminate them,” said Handfield-Jones.

This has seen certain authorities encourage and even incentivise traffic officials to take advantage of abusive laws and negligent road engineering in the pursuit of revenue.

Road safety should be a service funded by the taxpayer to save lives, but this is not being pursued due to an inability to accurately calculate the required taxation rate and the lack of political fortitude to implement it.

“We therefore find government in the sociopathic state of claiming to care about road deaths on the one hand, but exploiting them for profit on the other,” concluded Handfield-Jones.

“It’s essentially a choice between lives and money, and money has won.”

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