Recent bus accidents: Road Traffic Management Corporation & Departmental reports

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17 August 2009
Chairperson: Ms N Bhengu (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), a public entity reporting to the Minister of Transport, briefed the Committee firstly on the overall background to bus crashes. Reasons for such accidents included many bus drivers exceeding the speed limit on rural roads, especially at night and in the North West Province. Bus accident fatalities increased nearly 50% nationwide between 2007 and 2008, and nearly 600% in the North West province.

The RTMC then gave a specific presentation on its interventions to address the frequent bus accidents involving vehicles of SA Road Link. Human factors were identified, amongst others, as contributory factors to Roadlink crashes, in particular, fatigue due to long driving hours, mistakes by drivers, including inappropriate positioning of their vehicles on the road and over reacting to incidents. Road and environmental factors and vehicle factors were not identified as contributory. The RTMC recommended that there should be targeted law enforcement on buses, such as mini roadblocks to check the state of drivers and vehicles, the implementation of the Traffic Law Enforcement Code, which would set targets for how many buses would be pulled over, and an analysis of compliance data on all bus companies, crash investigations, updates on progress, recommendations to provinces and local authorities and interviews with bus operators who were repeat offenders.

Members asked detailed and intensive questions based on their own travel experiences, including difficulty in accessing help through the 10111 number, and the initial success of Roadlink, followed by its failure to deploy relief drivers, the fact that some buses were encouraged to reach their destinations ahead of schedule, thus speeding. They noted that the public should be educated to boycott the buses of companies known to have a poor safety record. Members concurred that the Road Traffic Management Corporation’s report was not comprehensive enough and requested a more detailed analysis. Members called for offending drivers and operators to be punished simultaneously, and for the curbing of alcohol use by drivers, including limits on the sale of alcoholic drinks at roadside stops.

RTMC confirmed that it had not had time, due to the short notice, to present a complete analysis but confirmed that this was important. It noted that SA Roadlink had attracted attention because of the high number of fatalities in its accidents. The Road Traffic Management Corporation had completed the development of an accident capturing system to enable it to have almost real time access to accident information, but confirmed that it should go further than compiling statistics and aim also to save lives. A further briefing would be given.

Meeting report

Opening and welcome
The Chairperson welcomed members of the Department of Transport (DOT), the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), the Road Accident Fund. The apologies of Mr Ranthoko Rakgoale, Chief Executive Officer of RTMC, were noted.

Mr S Farrow (DA) asked why Mr Rakgoale was absent.

Mr Gerrie Botha, Senior Executive Officer and Advisor to the Chief Executive Officer, RTMC, explained that Mr Rakgoale had a previous commitment to attend a meeting of heads of departments, and that the notice of this meeting with the Committee had been short.

The Chairperson said that she would take up the matter of informing the Department with the House Chairperson’s office, where the delay in communications seemed to lie.

The Chairperson announced that the Road Accident Fund’s briefing would be postponed until 25 August 2009, as there was insufficient time to hear both briefings.

Bus accidents: Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) Briefing presentation
Dr Hlengane Moyana, Senior Executive Manager, Traffic Engineering, Information and Research, RTMC, noted that the RTMC was a public entity that reported to a committee of shareholders, with the Minister of Transport as Chair. He briefed the Committee firstly on the overall background to bus crashes in general, and presented a number of statistics.

Dr Moyane reported that, in terms of roadworthiness, 10% of buses were found unroadworthy in June 2009, an increase of about 2% on the previous year. Nearly 17.5 % of buses in the Eastern Cape were found to have ‘light defects’, an increase from about 3% in 2005. 40% of buses were found to have worn or damaged tires in the North West province in 2006. With regard to issues of driver fitness, as many as 20% of bus drivers were found to lack professional driver permits (PrDPs). More than 2% of bus drivers exceeded the alcohol limit nationwide at night and this percentage rose to 5% in Gauteng. In general, nighttime excesses were greater than those in the daytime, except in the Eastern Cape, where 5% of drivers exceeded the alcohol limit in the daytime. A high percentage of bus drivers exceeded the speed limit on rural roads, especially at night and in the North West Province. ‘Bus fatalities’ increased nearly 50% nationwide between 2007 and 2008, and nearly 600% in the North West province. Slides 1 to 12 of the presentation were shown in support and explanation of these statistics.

Dr Moyana then briefed the Committee on the RTMC’s intervention to address the frequent bus accidents specifically involving vehicles of SA Road Link.

Dr Moyana identified human factors amongst others as contributory factors to Roadlink crashes. These included fatigue due to long driving hours, mistakes by drivers such as inappropriate positioning of their vehicles on the road, and over reacting to incidents. Road and environmental factors were not identified as contributory factors, nor were vehicle factors.

The RTMC recommended a number of interventions to address bus crashes. There should be targeted law enforcement on buses, for example, ‘mini’ roadblocks at stopping and service areas on major routes to check the fitness of drivers and their vehicles. The Traffic Law Enforcement Code, under which officers would have set targets as to the number of buses they would have to pull over, should be enforced. There should be analysis of bus companies to determine their level of compliance for the roadworthiness of their buses and the fitness of their drivers. The results of such analysis should inform law enforcement targets. Crash investigations of all major bus crashes should be conducted. Recommendations should be made to provinces and local authorities for implementation on their roads. There should be regular updates on progress achieved in implementing the recommended interventions. Finally, the Minister should, in terms of the National Road Transport Act, interview those bus operators identified as regular offenders.

Ms N Ngele (ANC) cited her experience of travel in the Eastern Cape, and said that SA Roadlink was popular at first because it was cheap and fast. The buses were smart. However, its drivers, including some foreign drivers, were ‘always in a rush’.

Dr Moyana agreed with her that many passengers made choices because they wanted to reach their destinations as quickly as possible, and added that excessive speed was one of the leading causes of accidents so far established by the RTMC’s investigation into fatal accidents. Unfortunately, many consumers would also have speed in reaching their destinations as a prime reason for deciding whether a vehicle or bus company was their best choice. There was thus a need to educate the public, not only the drivers, that exceeding the speed limit was unacceptable. Moreover, members of the public should be encouraged to avoid altogether the buses of companies known to have a poor safety record. He said that he knew of buses that travelled from Johannesburg to Limpopo that were awarded ‘star’ ratings for speed, and he had witnessed passengers bragging about the speed of their buses and the accompanying risk to their own safety.

Ms Ngele said that all other bus companies had more than one driver, but SA Roadlink had no relief driver, and the seat intended for a relief driver was typically allocated to passengers. She mentioned fatigue, insufficient stops, and night journeys as contributory factors, but said that other buses using that same road in the Eastern Cape did not have the same number of accidents.

Dr Moyana agreed that another of the reasons for accidents was driver fatigue. He gave the example of a driver who was required to drive his bus from Johannesburg to KwaZulu-Natal and, having offloaded his passengers, was then required to pick up a new load of passengers and drive straight back to Johannesburg. RTMC had to ask whether there were dedicated co-drivers for buses, to enable it to make well-informed interventions. He also said that there was a need to have a check-list, and to ensure that the vehicles were not being overloaded.

Mr Botha said that part of the law enforcement issue, which was in fact being discussed by Mr Rakgoale during his meeting today with heads of departments, was that there was no law enforcement on the roads at night or at weekends. Law enforcement officers would work from 9am to 4 pm. However, many of the buses travelled overnight. It was vital to categorise law enforcement officers as essential staff, so that they could be deployed at night and at weekends. Checks at road blocks should include inspection of the seat designated for the co-driver to ensure that it was not being used by passengers instead, and the need to verify that there was indeed a co-driver on board.

Mr S Farrow (DA) was dissatisfied with the RTMC’s report, commenting that he had not found it comprehensive enough. He queried the high ranking of Golden Arrow, an urban bus company, in terms of accident rate, while SA Roadlink, a long-distance operator, was given a low ranking. There were other bus operators that appeared to have been omitted. He asked for an analysis by urban and long-distance bus operators.

Mr Botha replied that such omissions were included in the ‘plus others TOTAL’ (on Slide 3). He said that RTMC had received only short notice of the meeting and had not had sufficient time to extract the required information regarding urban and long-distance operators from its analysis.

Dr Moyana added that statistics on bus accidents had already been collected, but that it was now important to analyse the statistics, particularly with reference to the fatalities, to determine which kinds of accidents resulted in the loss of life.  SA Roadlink had attracted particular attention because of the high number of fatalities arising from its accidents.

Mr Farrow further asked for an analysis of the age of buses.

Mr Botha replied that RTMC had the required information and would provide details.  Nationally, the average age of buses was 13 years, and in the Western Cape it was nine years. 

Mr Farrow further asked if RTMC deployed inspectors under applicable legislation to go to bus depots and check that buses were in order before they went out onto the road and to check that log books and work records were correct. Irrespective of recapitalisation or the lack of this, an unroadworthy bus should be ordered off the road. . A bus should not leave the depot if something was wrong with it.

Dr Moyana agreed that RTMC needed to re-examine log sheets. He reiterated the need for check-lists. As Mr Farrow had indicated, RTMC should visit bus operators and ensure their compliance in terms of log sheets, co-drivers, and roadworthiness. RTMC was making progress. Its analysis was a method of profiling bus operators to determine RTMC’s priorities for inspection visits.

Mr Botha added that at present RTMC was not mandated to examine vehicle registration and licensing, roadworthiness and testing of vehicles, and licensing of drivers. The RTMC sought the inclusion of these functions within its mandate. Roadworthiness testing of vehicles was at present a legislative function of the South African Bureau of Standards.

Mr Botha added that RTMC sought approval of the current draft of the Traffic Safety Management Plan, a six-year programme covering all functional areas in road traffic management and identifying the roles of the RTMC, the provinces, the South African Police Service (SAPS) and other role players. Once that draft was approved, the RTMC would have a blueprint for a full programme of what would be expected of all concerned. Mr Botha added that an important provision of the Road Traffic Management Corporation Act (the Act) was the development, introduction, and publication of the national road traffic law enforcement code. This was a most important document, because the Act also enabled the RTMC to enter into performance agreements with the traffic authorities regarding this code. This code was in its final draft stage. He believed that the most important aspect was law enforcement, supported by communication. As Dr Moyana had mentioned, in terms of the law enforcement code, it was envisaged that each traffic officer would be expected, each day, to stop and check at the roadside 14 vehicles and 14 drivers in various categories, and would, if necessary, have the authority to remove defective vehicles to a testing station for further examination. The RTMC also wanted to assist traffic officers with mobile units for checking vehicles at various locations on toll roads. 

Mr Farrow agreed that an inspectorate was an important factor in regard to driver fatigue, irrespective of the rumour that drivers changed places at the steering wheel while the vehicle was being driven. He asked what steps the RTMC was taking to ensure that all drivers had a professional driver permit. He did not believe that this issue had been examined seriously. He asked for the names of directors of the bus companies. It was the duty of all concerned to enforce safety regulations, and he envisaged the role of the RTMC as enforcement and accreditation. It was notable that when law enforcement officers conducted road blocks, drivers diverted to other routes. Alternative routes should also be subject to road blocks at the same time.

Mr Botha acknowledged the need to examine the alternative routes as well.

Mr Botha acknowledged the need to have closer liaison with the operating boards and the need to bring operating licences into the total equation when RTMC performed this kind of analysis. He noted that on many occasions when a bus was involved in an accident, a truck was also involved.

Mr Botha said that the International Standards Organisation had convened a committee, which he and Dr Moyana had attended earlier in 2009, on the system of the Road Traffic Safety Management International Standards Organisation. This was similar to South Africa’s own system, and was developed mainly for self-regulation of overloaded vehicles. It was hoped to extend this concept to other safety issues, and to encourage bus operating companies to register with the International Standards Organisation.

Mr Farrow said that South Africa, particularly in view of the forthcoming 2010 World Cup, could not afford to sustain so many accidents. He said that Members urgently wanted to know the RTMC’s plans.

The Chairperson agreed with the urgency of the matter.

Ms P Ngwenya-Mabila (ANC) asked about the role of provinces in investigation, about service providers, what plans the RTMC had made to ensure accurate recording of accident data, what recommendations the RTMC had made to the provinces, the extent to which the RTMC had monitored interventions, and about the Minister’s interviews with bus operators.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila also asked for clarity as to whether drivers were in fact allowed to drink prior to driving, provided that they did not exceed a certain limit. She also said that an offending driver and operator should be fined together.

Mr Botha said that drinking and driving was problematic in terms of law, because alcohol-related offences needed to be prosecuted through the courts. Blood samples were also a problem, since breathalyser alcohol tests were cheap, but some magistrates insisted on blood samples too. It was especially important to be able to use breath alcohol tests at night when, as Dr Moyana had pointed out, there was a greater tendency for drivers to take to the road under the influence of alcohol. There had been resistance from the Department of Justice to the idea of establishing a zero tolerance for alcohol, since it was argued that some medicines contained a small amount of alcohol. However, professional drivers were limited to a lower blood alcohol level than ordinary drivers. He noted that drivers who had exceeded the limit had in many cases exceeded it by as much as six to ten times.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked whether the drivers without the professional driving permit (PrDP), or the bus operating companies that employed them, who were liable for prosecution.

Mr Botha replied that under the Criminal Procedure Act only the driver was liable to prosecution. Proposed legislation would provide for automatic penalties for operators whose drivers were fined for such offences.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked about the Driver of the Year competition.

Mr Botha replied that the only impact thus far was in terms of a transfer of skills.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked about progress with the National Traffic Code, commenting that she had not heard about it for a long time.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked whether the Provinces, the RTMC, or service providers were responsible for accident investigation and recording.

Mr Botha replied that this was outsourced to an independent company.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked what measures the RTMC was taking to respond to the challenge of recording accidents. If there were no reliable statistics of the accidents taking place in South Africa, it was impossible to formulate a plan to avoid them. She asked for plans to ensure accurate data, noting also that the RTMC had spoken of a national accident register.

Mr Botha replied that there were three sources of information for recording accidents. The first was the general overall system, which was the responsibility of the South African Police Service (SAPS). This entailed completion of the four-point accident report form for all fatal, major or minor accidents, but it was not comprehensive. The second was information directly obtained from local police stations, but this was available only for fatal collisions, which accounted for about 1.5% of collisions annually. The third was RTMC’s own specific accident investigations, outsourced to private service providers. Such investigations were conducted for especially serious accidents, according to certain criteria of severity of accident. There were about 160 such accidents per year, of which the RTMC investigated 30%. The RTMC intended to investigate all accidents in future.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked about the recommendations that the RTMC was making to the provinces. It was not enough to keep making recommendations, but rather it was essential to monitor implementation so that the efficacy of such recommendations could be assessed.

Mr Botha replied that there was some difficulty in obtaining feedback from provinces.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked what would happen after the Minister’s interviews with the bus operators.

Mr Botha replied that the Minister, or the MEC, in terms of Section 82 of the Road Traffic Act, could appoint an inspectorate to enter the premises of the specific operator concerned. Based on the inspectorate’s report, the Minister or the MEC could call in the operator for an interview.

Mr Botha added that the RTMC was considering the possibility that public service vehicles should be subject to compulsory testing twice a year, not annually as at present.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked further about the law enforcement code, accident investigations and the general response of the SAPS, which was not comprehensive.

Mr Botha replied that the law enforcement code was a most important document that had now been finalised but that needed to be approved. He said that there was a need for individual performance agreements with individual traffic officers.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila asked if there was any progress with pocket computers to be issued to traffic officers.

Dr Moyana responded that traffic officers were to be issued with pocket computers, and prototypes had been developed. Procurement processes were being established for the computers and the necessary software.

Mr P Poho (COPE) asked about improving accident data.

Dr Moyana responded that RTMC had completed the development of an accident capturing system to enable RTMC to have almost real-time access to accident information. It was still negotiating with SAPS on establishment of a pilot project, based on data capturing at police stations. RTMC was convinced that accurate data capturing at police stations could improve the quality and completeness of accident investigation. As Mr Botha had indicated, RTMC was examining about 30% of the accidents. It sought additionally to establish its own in-house accident investigation unit, and envisaged this as an opportunity for skills transfer. He stressed that it was not enough for RTMC merely to compile statistics, but that it should go further and use the information to save lives.

Ms T Monile, Senior Manager, Legal Services, RTMC, added that RTMC indeed faced some legislative challenges, particularly with regard to inquiries, and was currently proposing some amendments in those areas, for which it would, through the Department, seek the Committee’s support.

The Chairperson suggested that a follow-up meeting would be desirable. The current meeting had served to introduce Members and the delegation to the issues that needed focus. She asked how the Committee might intervene if the existing laws were not strong enough to prevent problems. Should the implementation of legislation be unsatisfactory, the Committee must be advised what preventive, rather than reactive, measures the Committee should introduce.

The Chairperson noted that a driver, when seeking to renew his or her driving licence, had to undergo an eye test. She asked why motor vehicles were not required to obtain test reports before the owner was allowed to renew their registration. She further enquired why manufacturers were allowed to make cars capable of speeds in excess of 200 kph, far in excess of the national speed limit, and if speed governors could not be fitted to vehicles. The Chairperson noted that statistics on how many people had died or had been disabled in the accidents discussed were required, and the Committee expected a future presentation.

She noted that the RTMC should consider also the disruption to other road users resulting from such accidents. Bus operators were profit driven, and hence wanted to employ as few people as possible. The Committee lacked a clear picture of the bus companies’ pattern of deployment of drivers, and would like to receive details on this. She asked also how many bus companies had lost their operating licences through accidents, whether because of the driver or the condition of the bus, and if any companies had been blacklisted.

The Chairperson said that she had read of technology that would prevent a drunken driver from starting a motor vehicle and asked if such a device was too expensive to be viable as a means of saving lives. Traffic officers could not be expected to check each driver behind the wheel. She also asked about blacklisting and the demerit system, which would ensure that those without licences would be gradually taken off the system. She suggested limiting the alcohol trading licences or the hours of their trade. This was an issue to discuss inter-governmentally. The RTMC’s slides had presented a situation that differed from one province to another.

The Chairperson said that Members were dismayed at the widespread deterioration of South Africa’s road infrastructure and severe congestion, for example, the one hour’s journey at peak times from Acacia Park to Parliament. The Committee sought changes, and expected a follow up to questions that could not be answered in the meeting.

Dr Moyana responded that the RTMC made recommendations to local authorities for improvements in infrastructure in terms of engineering. He noted that many roads were narrow and lacked shoulder lands. This increased the risk of head-on collisions between overtaking vehicles. 

The Department of Transport was commissioning a new study on fatigue, with particular reference to public transport vehicles, but would have to review the practicalities of alcohol detectors and the synergy of law enforcement agencies. The Department had prohibited the advertisement of alcoholic drinks on certain roads.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila observed that there were numerous alcohol advertisements for alcoholic drinks on the road to Mpumalanga.

Mr Farrow questioned whether it was reasonable to rely upon a busy Minister to conduct interviews with bus operators, and asked if this could be delegated. He said that no driver should work for more than two or three hours without a break. He called for buses to be fitted with ‘black boxes’. He said that the Committee would be willing to work overtime to achieve the necessary regulations. Road accidents cost South Africa as much as R49 billion per annum. He questioned an apparent discrepancy between figures of the RTMC and the Road Accident Fund.

The Chairperson observed that the Committee bore a heavy responsibility to the citizens of South Africa, who deserved quality infrastructure and services for themselves, over and above the needs for 2010. There were numerous children needlessly orphaned by road accidents.

Ms Ngele pleaded that pot holes be repaired.

Ms Ngwenya-Mabila agreed with Ms Ngele, but said that this was not the mandate of the RTMC, and that it would be necessary to engage with the Department of Transport on the state of the roads in Mpumalanga.

Mr Poho asked about driver fitness and lessons, noting that fitness to drive did not relate just to physical fitness, but to the behaviour displayed.

The Chairperson asked if there was an association of bus operators, similar to that of the taxi industry.

The Chairperson narrated her frustration in attempting to report an accident at which she had been the first on the scene. On dialling 10111 she discovered that this was not a toll free number. She was then referred to another number, only to be told that she must telephone another police station to report the accident and summon help. She pleaded that 10111 be made a toll free number, and also asked if a toll free number could be provided to report drunken bus drivers.

Dr Maria Koorts, Deputy Director General, Department of Transport, replied that the Department would have to investigate the matter of the 10111 emergency number.

Mr Botha said that the adverse state of roads, in particular potholes that could not be seen at night, was an increasing factor in causing accidents. Another factor was over-reaction by drivers when confronted by hazards.

The Chairperson noted that many people living in the rural areas and the townships lacked a voice, needed assistance in matters such as finding jobs, and deserved the same quality of services as others. She noted that employing people to fill potholes and identify defective infrastructure, would assist in creating jobs and reducing accidents.

The meeting was adjourned.


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