22 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Drive Safely - Rather Be Late Than Never


As happens every year, some families will mark this festive season attending funerals of kith and kin killed by speeding and drunken drivers who think that Christmas and New Year is a time to get drunk before racing home.

The police are doing their best, putting in a lot more check points which will at least cool down some of the bad drivers, although most are on their best behaviour when they see a police team on the side of the road or a highway patrol car in their rearview mirror.

The roadblocks are better at catching the tax dodgers and those driving vehicles with obvious and serious faults, than speeding drunks, but they do valuable work as well in keeping bad drivers under some control.

Unfortunately, the police are not adequately equipped to test most drivers for possible breaches of the drinking and driving ban. A few highway patrol cars are fitted with the needed equipment, but can normally only test those drivers who are obviously drunk, the ones who collapse on the road when getting out of their cars.

Yet anyone who has more than one or two beers and is driving is almost certainly in breach of the law and that is a large group, especially at this time of the year. The limit of 80g of alcohol per 100ml of blood is not arbitrary. In countries where that limit, or these days even tighter limits, are enforced through mass random testing of drivers there has been a dramatic fall in accidents and lost lives. It is clear that quite low concentrations of alcohol can have a serious effect on driving.

We would like to see such mass random testing on our roads as well. After the first weekend of a concentrated campaign, with thousands of drivers hauled in batches before the courts, the word would get around and many drivers would either not drink before they drive, or would work out lift arrangements or would take taxis home.

In much of Europe the rigid enforcement of drink and drive bans has seen a resurgence in the local pubs and bars, as far more people choose to drink somewhere where they can walk home. At some stage the ZRP are going to have to start doing the same.

But the police do appear to have obtained some of those modern miniature speed radars. These must be deployed more often. After alcohol, speed is the biggest killer and here the police can do something.

A lot of other problems that kill people on the roads, such as burst tyres, would not kill if the drivers concerned were keeping within the speed limits, or travelling even slower at night. In fact there are good grounds for having two limits on every highway, one for driving on dry roads in the daytime and one, a lower one, for night driving or wet roads.

But a driver moving at a reasonable speed for the conditions experiencing a burst tyre will retain control of the vehicle and will be able to come to a safe stop, especially if they follow the correct procedure and come to a gentle halt rather than try to do emergency braking. More drivers need to realise that a dented wheel is a minor problem and they should not worry too much about possible wheel damage and worry more about retaining control while the come to the recommended gentle halt.

This leads to another problem facing Zimbabwean road users. Driving tests and driving lessons do not include any night driving, or any lessons on how to cope with emergencies. Many commercial drivers have taken defensive driving courses, but most people on the roads have not. Perhaps we need to amend our traffic laws so that the first driving test just creates a probationer driver, with "P" plates replacing the "L" plates.

Such drivers would be limited in speed until they had completed successfully a defensive driving or similar advanced course and knew more about what they should do when faced with an emergency or when they have to deal with another driver breaking laws or in trouble of his own.

But for this festive season we just urge all drivers to be very careful and very alert. Most of those killed are not speeding drunks; unfortunately most are killed by those speeding drunks and until the police are adequately equipped to take them off the roads and keep them off the roads, we all need to be very careful indeed.

A journey might take a little longer, but it is better to arrive a few minutes late than never arrive at all.

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