In the Eye of the Beholder

In July of 2005, the Road Traffic Management Corporation reported that, during the 2003-2004 crash statistics’ reporting period, more people died on South African roads each day (one every 48 minutes) than people were killed in Iraq, an acknowledged war zone.Historically, bad road conditions have only been responsible for roughly 5% of our accidents; human error, irresponsible and drunken driving have been said to cause far more bodily annihilation than poor road conditions.The percentage of accidents for which bad road conditions are directly responsible, has leapt through 10% and is heading for 15%, Gary Ronald of the AASA, reported. As a result, the AA has begun a campaign to encourage road users to SMS the AA with information about poor road conditions. Potholes, missing traffic signs and flooding are notable concerns.Theirs is not the only campaign of this nature. Whether they succeed in galvanising municipalities, provinces and highway management consultants into speedier and more competent repair action, is debatable.The authorities must accept that poor road conditions not only affect crashes, but also cause considerable congestion, poor public-transport access and contribute significantly to the cost of vehicle maintenance. All of which directly affects people in all economic categories; their lives and their deaths.Strategic objective (Department of Transport’s 2000 – 2005 The Road to Safety document)In order to realise the mission, an equally clear and simple strategic objective is required. We have set this objective as being:”To reduce crashes, deaths and injuries on South Africa’s roads by 5% year-on-year until the year 2005 – at a saving to the economy of R770 million per annum – and then, based on the strengthened institutional platform created, by at least 10% year-on-year until the year 2009.”The targets have been set in carefully separated stages to take realistic account of the constraints still facing us in the current phase of fundamental restructuring of road traffic safety management. This restructuring work lies at the heart of The Road to Safety.In 2005 we will thoroughly review the emerging statistical trends and, if these trends are as positive as we hope, recommit ourselves to the more ambitious target of 10% (or, if justified by progress, consider setting a higher target).Ouch! Eina! And Eish! Enough said…Even the Minister of Transport had the grace to mention, in a message on the DoT website, ironically headed: ‘Taking the road to Safety’ that ‘there are serious disparities in road conditions, nationally’.Management and deliveryIt is commonly considered politically correct to blame the previous regime for the state of our roads. Over a decade has passed since the newly victorious entered (left, through ballot box) with full knowledge that service delivery had not addressed the entire population for over a century and had been seriously diminished during the prior decade, as the ruling party non-comrades redirected their focus towards the more personal issue of coping on reduced income.This is underscored by the state of the inherited rail system. Where once the rail service was quite phenomenal (envisioned by Rhodes in his dream of a monopoly from ‘Cape to Cairo’) branch lines and outlying stations were closed down in the late ’80s – declared unprofitable – in a country where an independent public transport/taxi industry was becoming a noticeable force.Assets that are not adequately maintained will very soon become liabilities – a rule of life – just as first-time homeowners discover that their bond payments are negligible when compared to the cost of maintaining and improving their home over the life of its bond. And like bond interest, negligence compounds, until ‘renovation’ becomes virtually unaffordable. It follows that the budget necessary to maintain and expand South Africa’s once-excellent road structure is now exorbitant.Other factors, like the refusal by many, to pay for services, tax evasion of many working in informal-sector industries (crime and drug dealing, for instance), the migration of people to our cities (and a hybridised shack-dwelling lifestyle) and the high rate of unemployment, have made it even more difficult to restore what has now been neglected for at least two decades.Now that the penny seems to have dropped, so has its value and maintenance costs have soared.Public evolutionMoreover, as jobs have become more available to a wider market and the economy develops, so those who once might never have expected to travel further from home than their closest town, have become frequent and seasoned travellers. Large numbers have afforded their own vehicles and enjoy complete freedom of movement.Sanctions ensured that instruments of industry, such as ports, freight transport and the other trappings of healthy economies, became fairly unprofitable. Not only those aboard the previous gravy train paid the price of sanctions. Despite surges in the economy, the technological era, an ultra-just constitution and definitive labour laws have marginalized ordinary people.It was no secret that virtually every sphere of public business was bound to need urgent regeneration, come 1994. It is hardly surprising that our roads have taken such a beating, now that more vehicles are pounding past us, more times, on a daily basis.First prize will surely go to a plan that incorporates most of what South Africa urgently needs to set her people free.Ditches to nowhereAcross the sea, America has a similar history to ours – vast tracts of land colonised by pasty, white foreigners, who credited the native Americans and their own slaves, with debatably fewer rights than those awarded to their South African counterparts.There, Franklin D Roosevelt, is famed for his Five Year Plan. On the return of many thousand troops from World War I, unemployment and hardship were rife as America sank into a post-war recession. His plan ensured that jobs, mainly requiring unskilled labour, were available for returning troops.They didn’t pay much, but they did prevent families from starving and labourers moved to outlying and eventually, rural areas, as they followed the projects initiated, creating a magnificent infrastructure for the USA.Roosevelt’s Five Year Plan opened up areas where no thinking person would previously have chosen to live and presented new, unforeseen opportunities for necessary service industries and businesses.As projects were completed, so the state was slowly relieved of the salary burden. Individuals bought land and established entire communities.Gold rushSouth Africans will see the similarity to our colonial past, with gold and diamonds the local incentive. Despite the fact that the colonial and Apartheid eras are so criticised, they did achieve for South Africa many of those features that modern society considers essential to well being – up to a point.There appears to be an incentive to repeat the American strategy in South Africa. It has, in fact, been introduced in at least one province already, to a lesser degree. In KZN, rural people, many female breadwinners, are employed by the state to keep rural roads passable: fill in potholes, cut grass and alert the authorities to essential, urgent, major repairs after extreme weather conditions.This presently only ensures that some rural families have regular, if meagre, income. But it works! To complete bigger projects, it only needs to work better. The more jobs that are made available in rural areas, the more incentive there is for city ‘squatters’ to return to those areas.The strategy could provide countless benefits, in the shape of thriving communities that would need more shops, services and facilities.FundingSouth Africa has, altogether, a road network of some 65 000km. The South African National Road’s Agency Limited (SANRAL) is mandated is to “develop, maintain and manage South Africa’s 7 200 km national road network comprising over R30 billion in assets, excluding land”.In September 2005, SANRAL reported a ‘spend’ of R1.2 billion for maintaining the national road network during the 2004/2005 financial year. Revenue had grown from R1.3 billion to R2.2 billion profit stood at R406 million. SANRAL’s annual report stated that the road network had grown by 1 560km (77% of which were non-toll roads) during that period, to a total of 10 880km.When the agency was formed in 1998, the intention of DoT was to decrease its annual Treasury subsidy until it became self-supporting; the entire point being that it should function as a private entity, despite its responsibility to report to the Minister of Transport, its owner and sole shareholder.In July 2006, Minister Radebe quoted (in reply to a parliamentary question) that public funds for national roads will almost triple (from the R1.2-billion allocated for 2002/2003) to R3.5-billion by the 2008/2009 financial year. Over the same period, provincial road allocations will grow from R5.2 billion to R11.8 billion. The private sector has apparently contributed more than R9 billion via concession contracts for national roads, since 1998 (iafrica, 24/7/06).Although we are regularly told that government is unable to budget sufficient to keep roads maintained and that plans are afoot to surtax the driving public in some provinces, supplementary to the fuel levy, no mention was made as to whether the above amounts included the levy or not.Question timePertinent questions occur:Does SANRAL still benefit from a government subsidy, despite its 2004/2005 R406 million profit?Does Treasury release the fuel levy to DoT in Pretoria, to provincial government, municipalities or to SANRAL? And how regularly does this happen?Which specific projects have been funded from the levy during the years of its existence? (Do we know how it has been spent?)How do we know that there really is insufficient funding for road maintenance?How are the funds that are collected from traffic notices, provincially and municipally, used?Although government policy dictates transparency, the public will only be told as much as it asks to know. In clichéd terms: if we don’t know the answers, we’re asking the wrong questions.As those working within public service structures are aware, the transport discipline falls under various departments in different provinces: Transport, Public Works or Safety and Security. Thus, in different provinces, road engineering and maintenance are accorded different priorities. No wonder, service delivery standards are not constant.Ball controlIf hosting the 2010 World Cup galvanises Transport into action, it will have served a useful purpose. Should it result in an influx of buses, taxis and freight transport, the success of a few months’ bustling activity could turn into disaster for the future – the road infrastructure being already inadequate for the amount of traffic using it.In June 2006, Naamsa reported a total of 35 071 passenger vehicles were sold during May (a 16.6% increase on the same month in 2005). Business Day then reported, in July 2006, that the road infrastructure does not have sufficient capacity to carry current volumes.Small wonder, then that congestion paranoia is heightened. It will take far more than a few jolly soccer matches, still four years’ ahead, for government to confront and conquer the backlog. Add into the equation: a shortage of engineers and it seems clear that the road environment in SA is unlikely to improve much, soon.Supply chainEyefortransport’s view (6/7/05) that the local capacity crisis in the transportation industry is only a reflection of a similar, global situation where demand outstrips capacity and the reason for the speed at which our roads are deteriorating, becomes apparent, is not comforting.Between the 2002/2003 and 2005/2006 financial years, Engineering News (14-20/7/06) reported an increase of 16.5% heavy trucks registered. This article also mentioned decreases in rail locomotives (33%) and rail wagons (28%) for the same period, so we should not expect, it seems, Spoornet’s rolling stock to be ‘saving our socks’ any time soon!Perhaps consideration should be given to whether our heavy transport toll fees are covering the cost of the resulting road damage. The perception is that rail prices itself out of the market, but it is possible that rail is only just covering costs that government transport budgets are actually subsidising in the freight transport industry, to the detriment of the bottomless pit of road maintenance.The ratio of ‘1300 sedan’ to ‘overloaded extra heavy’ in road damage just does not seem to be proportionate to the toll fees charged. Although it has been suggested that weighbridges should be installed at all toll plazas, to ensure that overload tolls are collected repeatedly over long trips (thus freeing up enforcement officials for other work) exercises of this nature are deemed ‘too expensive’.Clearly, I haven’t done the arithmetic, but I do hope that someone has, because it appears to be an excellent long-term answer to a situation where fixing the roads is also considered ‘too expensive’!Dedicated routesA suggestion to build a dedicated freight transport highway between Johannesburg and Durban initially appeared to be innovative. The N3 presently carries immense loads and vehicle numbers, putting the safety of all who travel on it, at tremendous risk. Perhaps, though, we should pause to consider possible trends into the future:Is the N3 likely to remain as congested by freight into the future?Will the Richards Bay hub take some of the pressure off it in future years?If so, would a dedicated freight transport highway duplicating the present N2 route, not prove a more sensible option?If the present fuel depots in Durban are moved to Richards Bay or Coega, wouldn’t a dedicated freight transport highway or pipeline from there to Gauteng be more worthwhile?In fact, the amount of planned development reported for all South Africa’s ports, including Port Elizabeth and East London, is extensive. One wonders just how much coordination exists between one plan and another when bombarded by the numerous suggestions made in the press:Cape Town Harbour, it seems, would like a bit of the Durban ‘pie’; Maputo provides easier harbour access for Gauteng (but has a problematic border post); the Eastern Cape expects a sharp increase in inland-moving road freight on a newly-built highway that will allow the province to compete with its more industrialised neighbours; 400-plus kilometres can be cut off the journey West, but for some reason isn’t proving popular with freight transporters…We know that predictions made in the Moving South Africa report have already been outstripped. Has anyone in authority rehashed them? Have any statistical forecasts been done to establish where we will be in 5, 10 and 20 years? Does anyone really know which way we are heading and how we anticipate getting there? What logistical research capacity does Transport have?Crystal gazingAfter recent heavy rains and flooding, many roads, particularly those in the Eastern Cape, deteriorated significantly. Video clips on TV news programmes showed the N2 slipping seawards and dirt roads that were more crater than roadway. We could not but sympathise with anyone trusting vehicles to them. No driver with a loaded taxi would eagerly negotiate their terrors, even at walking pace. Only a yuppie intent on pushing his flashy, new SUV to its limits, could feel exhilaration.We can all empathise with people in rural areas, subsisting on next to nothing, next to virtually nothing! Their lives have doubtless become far more lonely and difficult since so many of their neighbours joined the influx to the cities. Just as there is no logic in providing frequent public transport that may frequently travel empty, or almost empty, the fact is, that in under populated areas, keeping roads in tip-top condition is nigh impossible.Few people are gainfully or regularly employed, few pay taxes and extreme poverty makes it tremendously difficult for people to find the fares for public transport. Retail therapy is simply not on their list of regular amusement. Yet, these people have as much need for reasonable roads as those of us whose health would vastly benefit from a quick walk to the shops.The introduction of democratic community road safety forums encourages community participation in decisions about safety upgrades to township and rural roads. Based on the premise that some communities respond more positively to agreed changes and that those living in an area understand the prevailing conditions better than visiting professionals, the forums have proved extremely successful.Whether urban or rural, whether in up-market or really poor areas, community road enhancement seems to have depended, latterly, quite heavily on a proliferation of one-way streets, speed humps, 4-way stops and traffic circles, all of which increase traffic congestion and totally negate a need for professional engineering abilities. Smooth traffic flow has been totally subjugated in favour of slowing traffic to a crawl.Although these tactics were devoted to saving lives, interestingly, focus on congestion was limited until Trevor Manual complained publicly and bitterly about the amount of time it was taking him to get to work every morning. Have the decisions made by road safety forums reduced road deaths over the long term? Are road deaths in urban areas down? Now, that would be a really interesting piece of research…because, as far as we can calculate, the numbers are still climbing somewhere!Warning bellsSouth Africa: home of the pothole, corrugations, blocked storm-water drains, washed-away craters, falling, thrown or strategically placed rocks and burning tyre barricades. There is little doubt that our road-user culture is one of a kind!Road reports with up-to-date information on road conditions and ongoing road repairs are now
available at the click of a mouse, through the press, radio and television. They even warn about hazardous weather conditions and recommend alternative routes. These general services to the public make pre-trip planning a pleasure and can also provide opportunities to avoid congestion.But few of us would think to check, on a daily basis, that our route to work was not to be disrupted. Nor would potholes left by road workers the previous day, be mentioned there. Rush-hour traffic jams are often caused by unmarked, inner-city road works.In February 2006, in a city downpour, several vehicles were immobilised and abandoned whilst negotiating a man-made trough that ran the entire width of Umgeni Road, in Durban. It had clearly remained unmarked the entire night. By 10:00, the area had still not been secured, nor was there any officer directing traffic.Commuters battled the elements and various vehicle disabilities until noon, when sandbags were used to shore up the road. One wonders how many vehicles hit that hole (at the regulation 60kmph speed) in the dark the previous evening…no wonder our taxis are in such atrocious condition!Last week, road workers in the next road to our home refilled holes to about ten centimetres below the surrounding road surface and left without marking the spot. The drivers who regularly use that road took a few days to remember, on approaching, to avoid it…by moving into the oncoming lane.Safe? Hardly; and then we wonder why our wheels are not balanced, our tyres wear quickly and our shock absorbers take strain. Yet, because we travel that road regularly, our perception remains that the road surface is reasonable.Expect the worstIt is often said that the reason South Africans believe their roads are bad, is because they perceive them to be perfect…work that one out! In essence, because so many of our roads are actually excellent, we have an exceedingly low tolerance for those that are less than perfect. We are so ‘spoilt rotten’ that we expect the impossible of the authorities whose function it is, to keep all our vehicles ‘rolling along’.It’s a point worth considering: even the most law-abiding citizens find it difficult to keep to the urban speed limit. Modern cars beg to hit 70kmph before reaching ‘fourth’ and this makes the adage “Don’t fool yourself, speed kills”, one that many drivers are pleased to disdain.Back to basicsSpeed for circumstance…if all the possible circumstances that could confront South African drivers are considered, bad road conditions should head the list. Do we have good cause for complaint? Indubitably, I believe! There is little doubt that, from municipalities to highway management consultancies, our roads are not checked, maintained or upgraded as well as they should be.I believe it to be a management issue – insufficient teams are detailed to perform checks regularly. Unless road workers alert road management to dubious conditions they have left behind, no follow up will occur. Extreme road damage is mostly a seasonal occurrence and can be anticipated. Seasonal workers can be employed to cope with it.Here’s a simple equation to get you going: no road maintenance = no sustainability = no benefits.

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