I had a mild argument with my dad last weekend about minibus taxi drivers in Johannesburg. Dad said that 90% of taxi drivers disobey the rules of the road on a regular basis. My argument is that it can’t be nearly that many – if 90% of taxi drivers were behaving badly on the roads all day every day, there would be total mayhem out there. I have noticed that on my route, the only people who allow me onto Jan Smuts drive in the morning are taxi drivers. Maybe I don’t have to encounter the worst of them – I only drive 8 kms to work, and most of that is on quiet suburban roads. I admit that a trip into town can be quite disconcerting.
I did concede, however, that Joburg roads are generally a scary place to be. In the last week, I have seen at least one accident every day – sometimes more. The worst was witnessing a motorcyclist being knocked off his bike on the highway – his body and his bike sliding out of control across four lanes of traffic. Every time I saw an accident, the thought occurred to me that the people involved were going about their days as usual, and in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
On top of the accidents, our roads are in pretty bad condition. I think most Joburg suburbs have experienced their roads being massacred by the people doing maintenance on underground pipes. Don’t get me wrong – I am seriously in favour of routine maintenance, and I don’t believe we’re doing enough of it. It’s just that the people who are tearing up the roads don’t seem to work in conjunction with the people who fix the roads, so there is often a gap between breaking and fixing.
Worse still, a few weeks ago I watched water pouring out of the road in Melville for over a week. Eventually the road began to fall apart. I tweeted the JRA and Joburg water (who never respond to tweets) and finally work began to happen on the problem (maybe or maybe not as a result of my tweet). This involved digging up half the road, removing several boulders from under it, replacing pipes and refilling the gap. I’m glad they fixed the problem. I wasn’t so glad to experience the two-week daily traffic jam both ways to try get into or out of Melville. That was finally fixed last week. A week and a half later, the surface of the road has still not been fixed. Grrr! Don’t even get me started on the people who fixed the huge hole on the corner near Westdene Dam but who didn’t fix the very visible pothole just 2 metres away.
In addition to accidents and poor roads, Johannesburg drivers are bombarded by beggars and robo-shop vendors at almost every traffic light. Sadly, these people find little sympathy from Johannesburgers for various reasons – primarily because most of us have fallen victim to robo-robbers, who smash windows for cell phones or threaten your life for your car. I’ve become much more aware of my surroundings and no longer drive with my handbag in my car as a result. There are regular beggars along my regular route whom I do try to support – if not with spare change, then at least with a sandwich or an orange. They know my children and I. They greet us and don’t lay on the guilt trip when we pass by.
As I drove home from gym this morning, and saw the second accident for the day, I thought about how it’s all very well to whinge about the poor condition of our roads, or bad drivers, or criminals, or poverty. In fact, it’s very easy to whinge. But it solves nothing. What takes guts in Joburg is to be the change you want to see on the roads.
Here’s how I do that: I try not to speed. I stop when the light changes to amber. I don’t text while driving any more. I try not to take phone calls (really need to install a hands-free kit!). I am polite to other drivers. I don’t fight to get ahead. I indicate. I wear my seat belt and insist that my children do too. I keep my rubbish in the car until I get to a bin. I don’t drive in the bus lane. I don’t turn right at traffic lights that are red for right turns, even if there is nothing coming. I’ve never been given the chance to bribe a traffic officer, but I’d like to believe that I’d do the right thing if I were asked. In short, I try to follow the rules of the road. Or at least I try to, most of the time. I’ve had one too many threatening gesture thrown my way with my children in the car to get too involved in battles on the roads.
If I was the Minister of Transport (or whatever the title is), I would make a big effort to educate road users about the rules, and also to enforce those rules. The death toll on South African roads is disgraceful – particularly over the holiday seasons. Actually, if I were the Minister of Roads and Mayhem, I’d resign. Surely there is a person out there who has an workable solution to the problems on our roads?
I’m not a martyr, but I strongly believe that if we want to make a difference, we need to live that difference. I encouraged my dad to try to notice when taxi drivers were doing something right. That might be a good start. I believe we have a right to be outraged at the state of our roads and the lack of proper maintenance and policing, but I think that instead of moaning about it at dinner parties, we should try to get involved in fixing things – reporting bad driving or potholes or corrupt officials. Maybe if we make an effort, we will encourage other good citizens to be bold too.
Oh, and Dad, of all the accidents I’ve seen in the last week, not one involved a taxi. It seems that either I was on the right roads not to see the bad taxis, or maybe that a percentage of ALL Joburg drivers behave badly on the roads. I’m still convinced that a much larger percentage of Joburg drivers DO follow the rules of the road. Prove me right, Joburgers!