South Africa has a grim track record when it comes to road safety. The Road Accident Fund (RAF) has been suffering financial pressures from the many attempts to be defrauded by claimants, lawyers and doctors alike. With more than R20.1 billion in claims being paid out in the last financial year it may come as no surprise that Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene has announced a 48 percent increase in the Road Accident Fund levy.
The problem is that the government seems to have missed the crucial point of the matter. Increasing the levy by 50 cents a litre (around R25 more per tankful) will make a substantial difference to the stability of the fund, however the focus should be on improving road safety instead of ensuring a staple sum to fund road crash injury payments.
Considering that road fatality risk has at least doubled since 1998, there is no reason to believe that a well-funded, integrated approach to road safety couldn't reverse the trend and reduce danger on our roads by half, if not more. Spending 50 cents a litre to reduce crashes until the RAF's injury claims drop below breakeven threshold would not only ensure the continued stability of the fund, it would save tens of thousands of lives too.
It is estimated that the 50 cents per litre increase will bring the RAF an annual windfall of around R10bn. Now imagine what could be done with R10bn a year if it were spent on road safety instead of supplementing the RAF's payouts.
The Road Traffic Management Corporation stumbles along on a parliamentary allocation of around R180m per annum, plus whatever it receives from the Transaction Fees charged upon licence renewals and similar transactions. The AA has pointed out on many occasions that the RTMC has not yet released full, detailed statistics on all crashes since it was formed in 1999. Without this data we cannot determine with any certainty what is happening on South Africa's roads, nor how to combat it. But if the RTMC were to suddenly come into a R10bn budget it would be able to generate an accurate statistics bundle. It would also then become possible to conduct other much-needed road safety research into the effects of our deteriorating roads, the standards of enforcement and the levels of resources available to coax drivers into obeying our traffic laws.
And let's assume, as we might, that the outcome of such research indicates that many more traffic officers are needed on the roads. This is undoubtedly the case - the traffic police have been under-resourced for decades. With a R10bn per annum budget at the RTMC's back, it could buy hundreds every year equipped with the highest standard of evidentiary camera and law enforcement equipment. R10bn would also create the ability for the RTMC to staff these new patrol vehicles with trained officers who could operate on a three-shift basis to ensure that traffic law enforcement is routinely a round-the-clock affair.
With R10bn a year at its back, the RTMC could also revamp the licensing system, provide free driving lessons for underprivileged learner drivers, and distribute road safety promotional material in bulk as the Department of Transport used to do.
As much as it seems like a good idea to spend money on road safety rather than accident compensation, this will clearly not happen overnight. Ideally, a percentage of the RAF levy should go to improving road safety over time, which would in turn reduce the amount that the RAF requires and potentially save lives in the process.