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South Africa's Top Killer Occupies the Driver's Seat : Traffic: Nearly three times as many people died in road accidents last year as perished in rampant political violence.

May 31, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In a land with one of the world's worst murder rates and a horrific history of political bloodletting, the deadliest killer by far is much more mundane: traffic.

As Americans count the traditional death toll of the Memorial Day weekend, in South Africa, the deaths of 50 people in a bus accident and a minibus collision with a car and truck last Thursday underscored this nation's grim status as one of the world's most dangerous places to drive. Or for that matter, even to walk.

More than 10,000 people died in traffic accidents here last year, or almost three times the number of people killed in political violence. Almost half the victims were pedestrians, mostly hit near the black townships and squatter camps that line many highways.

The chief cause of the carnage is simple, said Quinton van Eeden, assistant general manager of the Automobile Assn. of South Africa. "Unfortunately, the biggest problem is the driver," he said. "South Africans, I'd say in general, tend to be quite aggressive. We also have severe literacy problems. That sort of thing needs to change."

Apartheid may be dead, but its lethal legacy survives on South Africa's roads. The collision of First and Third World cars and conditions produces a daily litany of what newspapers inevitably call "horror crashes."

There are enough rich whites to support a BMW factory here, and their Mercedes-Benzes and other high-powered cars zoom at 75 m.p.h. along modern highways. Most blacks, however, commute in overcrowded minibuses used as taxis, while migrant workers and families heading home huddle in the back of slow-moving trucks.

"The problem here is you've got fast cars and slow cars," said Hubrecht Ribbins, head of traffic safety technology at CSIR, a private Pretoria-based research group. "The differentiation is a real problem, especially at night. When you have a truck filled with people going slowly home, and then a BMW comes along at high speed and doesn't expect anything, you get a rear-end collision."

Then there's corruption. To avoid South Africa's strict licensing tests, Ribbins estimates up to 1 million drivers--about 20% of the total--use bogus licenses obtained from now-abolished homeland governments or bought on a thriving black market.

But a chief cause of the staggering body count is minibus taxis. They can carry 16 passengers but often cram in dozens more. They barrel along at high speed, suddenly stopping to pick up or offload passengers. Drivers go hours without rest, afraid of stopping to sleep on roads plagued by bandits.

Few South Africans wear seat belts. And drunk drivers are a major problem. But Robin Scholtz, an Automobile Assn. spokesman, insists alcohol plays another role as well. "Our biggest problem is drunken pedestrians," he said. "They wander across the road, and the poor motorist hits them."

It doesn't help that sidewalks and pavements don't exist in most towns and townships. So poor people without transportation must walk in the road. And despite the dangers, few pedestrians wear light or reflective clothing at night. Only 1 in 100 blacks owns a car, while about half the whites do.

According to the Automobile Assn., South Africa's traffic fatality rate--about 35 per 100,000 people--ranks worst among 20 countries that it follows. It's twice America's rate, and higher than Third World nations such as Brazil, Botswana and Kenya. South Korea has the second-worst fatality rate with 27.

Still, South Korea doesn't have hippos. In a 1991 accident here, three cars and a 30-ton truck were nearly demolished in the Transvaal when they slammed into a hippopotamus and one another. Two people were injured; the hippo died.

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