The unsafe “in-group” on our roads

The more people break the rules of the road, the more tolerant others become of at-risk behaviour, and in time they, too, start to break the rules. To combat the scourge, company leaders should make a concerted effort to raise awareness of road safety, says BRIAN DARLINGTON

In 2017 I wrote an article titled: Not having to flip that switch, after spending two hours driving on the N2 highway between King Shaka Airport and Richards Bay. The article focused on the challenges involved in bridging the safety mindset gap between home and work.

Fast forward to 2019. At the end of the year, during one of my trips in South Africa, I was horrified to see so many drivers ignoring the rules of the road – many more than I had observed in previous years.

Once again, the number and severity of at-risk behaviours observed during the trip was staggering and rather concerning. These included:

• Drivers failing to stop at red traffic lights appeared to have become the norm. It is unbelievable that stopping at a red traffic light seems to have become an option these days. I was terrified each time I approached a green traffic light, and as a result I slowed down to ensure I didn’t collide with other drivers who were skipping red lights from my left and right.

• Speed limits seemed to mean very little as there were countless vehicles travelling at high speed, both on the N2 highway as well as the roads within Richards Bay. There were roadworks on the N2, which required drivers to slow down to 40 km/h. However, drivers of vehicles behind me were clearly frustrated as I kept to the designated speed. One driver in a bakkie flashed his vehicle’s lights constantly, indicating that I needed to speed up.

• Solid yellow lines, which are designed as emergency lanes, have been turned into regular traffic lanes along the N2. Vehicles approaching from behind expect drivers ahead to move into the emergency lane to allow an overtaking manoeuvre. One morning I was overtaking a vehicle that was driving in the emergency lane when, to my horror, a bus overtook me crossing a painted island on the road dedicated for vehicles intending to turn to the right.

Incidents such as these do not occur only during daylight hours when obstacles ahead – such as vehicles, pedestrians and even cattle in some instances – can be seen fairly easily. When driving at night, it is almost impossible to see far enough ahead to determine whether obstacles are present.

Other issues identified during the week were the number of passengers I saw sitting or standing in the load bins of trucks and bakkies with no safety-belt protection; the number of people talking or texting on their mobile phones while driving; and, the one that irritated me most was the number of children, including toddlers, who were standing or sitting on their parents’ laps in the passenger seats of vehicles.

During the trip, I spent two days in Pretoria and was shocked to observe minibus taxis on the wrong side of the road in peak-hour traffic, forcing oncoming vehicles to move out of the way to avoid collisions.

The more people break the rules of the road, the more tolerant others become of these types of at-risk behaviours and, in time they, too, start to break the rules. Using this analogy for safety beyond just the road, what’s needed is a 24-hour safety mindset.

Whether we are driving recklessly, talking on our mobile phones or texting while driving, the transgressions contribute to an unsafe mindset and development of unsafe behaviour.

To be honest, I am not sure what can be done to change the attitude of South African drivers, since so many seem to continuously break the rules of the road. It is concerning that traffic police seem to ignore the law-breakers and, at times, even breach the rules themselves.

However, leaders of companies should make a concerted effort to raise awareness of road safety among employees and contractors. It might not make a huge difference on the roads; however, every safe driver counts and makes a small difference. As I have often mentioned, we need to work on safe behavíour becoming a habit both on the conscious and unconscious levels.

If we develop safe habits in our workplace, they will eventually contribute to safe practices when our employees and contractors are on the roads and during their private lives. Safety is about caring for others – not only at work, but in public life as well.

Sadly, my experience confirmed how few drivers are sufficiently risk averse. People just do not seem to take their safety, or the safety of others, into account when it comes to driving – an attitude and approach that contributes significantly to the approximately 14 000 people being killed on South Africa’s roads each year. That number equates to 38 deaths on the roads each day – and our actions could make the difference in reducing the toll.

Many mornings I have a call with a friend in South Africa and we have a standing joke that I will receive what we call “the traffic report,” when comments are made on someone’s at-risk behavíour on the road, or the occurrence of yet another vehicle incident. It is tragic that during virtually every call, there is a reason for our “traffic report”.

One morning, while travelling from the hotel to the site, I noticed a large hippo grazing on the side of the road. This reminded me of what a lovely country South Africa is and how privileged we are with regard to the wildlife around us. Let us all respect and appreciate what we have – and that includes other users of the roads.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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