To The traffic department, Transport minister, JP Smith, the City of Cape Town, Road users and any other interested parties.

Firstly, I want to make it clear that I am fully aware that I am not an expert on the management of traffic or traffic law enforcement. However, the fact that even someone who is NOT an expert can make these obvious observations, should make all of this even more concerning.

Secondly, I would not presume to tell anyone who IS an expert, how to do their job. However, as I hope will become clear throughout this letter, SOMETHING has to be said, and something certainly has to change.

It is no secret that South Africa’s roads are rated amongst the most dangerous in the world. Annually, we kill roughly 14 000 people on our roads… at least that’s the most reliable figure I could find as actual, recent, road death statistics seem to be a very closely guarded secret.

One only needs to spend a few minutes on our roads during busy times to understand exactly what the problem is. Road users, have ZERO respect for the law. Vehicles are unroadworthy, rules are ignored, lane discipline is non-existent, taxis range from ignorant rolling road blocks to raging speed demons and drunk driving is practically a competitive sport.

People drive the way they do for 3 reasons: Firstly, they simply do not respect other road users, secondly they KNOW with a fairly accurate degree of certainty that they will get away with it. Finally, drivers know that even if caught, the consequences are fairly light, if any. Fines do not get paid, or a friendly contact gets them squashed.

However, it is very easy to observe driver behaviour and blame the drivers. Unfortunately, road users are only a product of their environment. The reason they do not respect the law, is simple – it is just not humanly possible to respect the way in which our laws are enforced.

Again, it does not take an expert or a particularly long time on our roads to observe that our law enforcement is more about revenue generation than it is about road safety. Now I am fully aware of the fact that the Department has heard, and dismissed this claim a million times. I am also aware that the revenue generated by traffic fines is important to both the department AND the city. However, I doubt very much if it would equal or justify the cost of 14 000 lives lost in pursuit of that revenue. Not to mention the countless lives that are ruined through serious injury.

Earlier this month I was pulled over and fined for driving in the bus lane on the N2 incoming. A couple of points need mentioning here – firstly, on the morning in question no fewer than 4 traffic police cars were stationed on the bend where I was pulled over, in order to pull over more cars. Secondly, the stop occurred less than 1km before the end of the bus lane and less than 20 minutes before the bus lane opens to other traffic. Thirdly, the bus lane on the N2 is NOT currently marked with yellow dotted lines and the word BUS written in the lane as prescribed by law. Fourthly, when this fact was pointed out to the officer, he argued that in fact, the bus lane had been marked INCORRECTLY all the years prior to now and it does NOT NEED to be marked as prescribed by law???

The fine is a relatively small amount, of R500. I was one of 3 cars pulled over at the same time by the same officer. When another officer approached one of the other cars, the officer that pulled me over shouted at him for “trying to steal his fines”. The fine issued was a section 56 notice to appear.

Now if we break all of that down there are SEVERAL causes for concern. Firstly let’s talk about the ‘stealing of fines’ comment from the officer. This indicates to me that the numbers of fines issued by officers are used as some kind of KPI to measure their performance. The department has denied for years that officers have quotas of fines that they have to issue, but this kind of defence of one’s  charge would indicate at least some kind of incentive from higher ups to issue as many fines as possible.

Secondly, I was one of 3 cars pulled over at the same time by a single officer. This wastes our time as we have to sit and wait for all the other drivers to be charged in a queue. It also causes a dangerous situation where we now have 4 police vehicles and up to 12 civilian vehicles all pulled into a small area on the hard shoulder in a blind corner of the highway. The blind corner is obviously chosen by the police as it hides their presence from oncoming drivers. Unfortunately it also means that people approaching that corner are not going to expect more than a dozen cars parked on the inside of the turn.

Thirdly, a section 56 notice can not be argued with a written submission like a photo-fine sent to you through the mail. In order to argue your case, you have to waste a day of your time sitting in traffic court to argue that the bus lane is not currently marked as is required by law. Unfortunately the fine amount is very small at R500 and traffic officers KNOW that no sensible person is going to waste their time arguing the fine in court, and they would rather just pay it and move on with their lives.

Finally, on a morning when I spotted several illegal and dangerous manoeuvres, several more unroadworthy vehicles, and at least one driver that I strongly suspect was under the influence of something, one really has to ask: Is bus lane offences really the best way to deploy 4 vehicles? In a department that is constantly telling us they do not have enough resources, is this really the best use of those resources they could think of?

If this had been a single occurrence I could perhaps still let it go, but this kind of behaviour from the traffic department has become the norm. Absolutely expected. Speed cameras are set up in areas where speeding is most likely, not most dangerous. Roadblocks are set up to target certain specific offences. Picking the easy targets to maximise profits whilst road users suffer.

The money making mentality is still being driven further! In recent years we saw the City of Cape Town introduce bylaws concerning the use of cell phones whilst driving. These bylaws allow officers to confiscate cell phones from drivers. Now whilst I do not for a second condone people who use their phones whilst driving, this law is NOTHING more than another money-making scheme.

Using your cell phone whilst driving, is a relatively minor offence in terms of the fine you receive. However, it is a very easy offence to police, and it is very commonly committed, so potentially a gold mine. Unfortunately, each offence is only worth R500. That is, unless you introduce a bylaw that allows you to impound the phone and then charge impound fees equal to more than double the cost of the fine issued for the offence!!!

What is worrying about this, is that JP Smith is doing the same thing again. Threatening to impound vehicles without front number plates, or with plates that are not fitted properly (ie rivetted). Now whilst I appreciate that front plates are a legal requirement, I also know that there are several cars on which there simply is no way to mount a number plate on the front. I also know of several people who have recently had their license disks removed and torn up by traffic officers who simply refused to listen to the reasonable explanations. Including a case where the plate literally fell off in a parking area and was lying under the car at the time! Now if the city charges around R1500 to impound a cell phone, imagine what they would charge to impound a car! Again, a relatively easy to police, minor offence with a small fine – suddenly becomes incredibly lucrative. And we have already seen abuse of power with regards to this issue, so imagine how much worse it will get when officers are being asked to push up those numbers!

Let’s be honest, the guys with fancy supercars that don’t have front plates on them, are hardly the biggest problem on our roads anyways. Simply by virtue of their small numbers if nothing else! Regardless, reckless driving is far more effectively policed by visible patrols on the road, than by speed cameras that require front number plates. So not having a front plate on the car genuinely doesn’t make that much of a difference. And certainly should not be grounds to impound the car!

I could spend the rest of the day picking out specific instances of ineffective policing. Such as the fact that every single study ever done has shown that speed cameras and roadblocks are 2 of the most ineffective tools to change driver behaviour that there is. Yet they are remarkably good at generating revenue. Sadly it just seems that whenever our traffic department happens upon a new method of enforcement that generates lots of money, they double down on it regardless of whether it makes roads safer or not. (take AARTO for example)

How can you possibly expect drivers to respect the law, when it is blindingly obvious that the law is only there to take more money out of our pockets? How do you ever expect to change driver behaviour, if drivers do not respect the law? Do you honestly expect the public to believe that the traffic department still provides a service, rather than just being another revenue collection mechanism?

I was going to end this letter by setting the traffic authorities a number of challenges, but I don’t feel like it would bring my message across the way I want it to. So I’ll rather end with a plea.

PLEASE, stop using the traffic department solely as a method of making more money. PLEASE start putting more focus on road safety rather than simply generating revenue. PLEASE stop assuming that the public are too stupid to see that this is in fact the case, because road users will never respect the law if the law is simply there to exploit us. And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE focus on reducing the number of deaths on or roads rather than the number of fines you issue.

I am sick and tired of reading about the traffic department’s “great successes” over a weekend or holiday period for issuing x-thousand number of fines for particular offences. Rather tell me how many accidents there were compared to last year, and measure your success by reductions in those numbers. Every fine you issue should be seen as a FAILURE. A failure to change driver behaviour and gain respect for the law. Your ultimate goal should never be to issue a certain number of fines or generate a certain amount of revenue. Your ultimate goal should be to create a driving culture in South Africa, where people drive safely and respectfully, without the need to issue a single fine.

On behalf of the 14000 people who will die on our roads this year. The people who will be scarred, seriously injured or disabled. On behalf of the families of thousands of South Africans who have suffered as a result of the dangers we face on our roads. Driver behaviour needs to change. The law needs to earn the respect of road users again. And for any of that to happen, the way in which you enforce the law needs to change. You’ve been doing the same thing for years, and it clearly isn’t working. PLEASE change tack rather than just constantly pushing the same agenda even harder – it isn’t working.

In hope that I will be heard,

Yours sincerely,

Quintin Smit