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Who are South Africa's worst drivers? The truth doesn't lie in the data

As often happens when people from Cape Town and Johannesburg get together, the question of which city has the worst drivers inevitably comes up – as it did while I was having a drink with some friends recently.

“We all know Cape Town’s drivers are the worst,” a friend from Jo’burg said confidently but, when pressed, the best proof he could muster was: “It’s a known fact, everyone knows it’s true.”

Determined to get to the bottom of the issue once and for all, I naively believed it would be a matter of simply checking available data to come up with a reasonably definitive answer.

But nothing could be further from the truth and what started out as a bit of fact-checking fun, uncovered a major problem with the availability of reliable accident data.

My plan was to obtain official information about the two cities from the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) – the government body responsible for collecting and analysing accident and traffic data – to compare key areas like accidents, deaths and injuries.

I also planned to ask insurance companies for data on accident claims and the average amounts of these claims, convinced they would have the information easily to hand to assess risk and premiums for vehicles they insured. I was also sure that the Automobile Association of South Africa would have their own database of statistics for the different cities.

Computer error rendered data unusable

First, the RTMC’s collection and distribution of data is in chaos and the integrity of the data available is questionable, say several people who have dealt with it.

Media24 Investigations highlighted the problem last year when they revealed that a “computer error within the Road Accident Management Corporation, government's custodian of road accident data, has rendered almost 20 years of national road accident data unusable.”

According to the report, data on non-fatal accidents had been corrupted when it was migrated to a new database. The data had not been backed up first.

RTMC manager Ashref Ismail confirmed that “the status quo remains the same”.

“We are piloting a completely new system of data management dubbed Crash Information Management System (CIMS). Given the fact that we are in pilot phase we are still relying on the old system where stats are collected manually from SAPS.”

Second, it soon became clear to me that the big insurance companies all have comprehensive and very detailed accident data that they use to assess risks when issuing motor policies. But they do not share it.

“I am not able to provide you with this detail,” John Melville, the executive head of risk assessment at Santam, one of South Africa’s biggest motor insurers, told me. He cited “potential customer sensitivity and competition-related matters” as the reason.

Fatal crashes and fatalities

Nevertheless, I was able to obtain some data that enabled me to make some (possibly flawed) assumptions in comparing Cape Town and Johannesburg drivers.

Rosina Moloto, the RTMC information manager, provided some minimal raw data which showed that there had been 139 fatal crashes,  in which one or more people died, in Johannesburg in 2009. This compared to 288 fatal crashes in Cape Town in the same year. In 2010 there were 144 fatal crashes in Johannesburg and 293 in Cape Town. The pattern continued in 2011 with 103 deadly crashes in Johannesburg and 232 in Cape Town. The RTMC was unable to provide figures for the number of people who died in those accidents.

Considering this data, it would seem that the Cape Town’s roads are the deadliest.

But how are accident fatalities counted in South Africa?

In both the United States and France anyone who dies within 30 days of a vehicle crash is counted as an accident fatality. In South Africa only people who die within six days are counted. In other words, if an accident victims lingers beyond that period and dies, they won’t be counted as a road accident fatality. This system is also dependent on police following up on the conditions of badly injured people admitted to hospital.

“This is problematic as I suspect that the follow-up of deaths by police beyond the actual crash scene is not always properly done,” says researcher Derek Luyt.

Is the Western Cape the deadliest province?

Because the RTMC figures are presented on a provincial and national basis it is easier to draw comparisons between Gauteng province and the Western Cape, where Johannesburg and Cape Town are situated respectively. (Approximately 64 percent of vehicles registered in Gauteng are in Johannesburg: 2,678,246 out of 4,184,760. Similarly 64.7 percent of vehicles registered in the Western Cape are in Cape Town: 1 113 533 out of 1 720 300)

In Gauteng there were 5.88 fatal car crashes per 10,000 vehicles in the 2010/2011 financial year down from 6.53 in 2009/2010, while in the Western Cape the figures were 7.11 and 7.63 respectively for the corresponding periods.

When it came to the number of people killed in accidents per 10,000 vehicles, the Gauteng death toll for 2010/2011 measured 6.79, down from 7.36 in 2009/2010. This compared to 8.72 and 9.19 deaths per 10,000 in the Western Cape for the same period.

On the basis of these statistics it would seem that the Western Cape has the deadliest roads of the two provinces.

The absence of comparative data for Cape Town and Johannesburg makes it impossible to properly compare the two cities.

More traffic fines issued in Johannesburg

AA spokesman Gary Ronald told me that “while anecdotally some may say that Cape Town drivers are the worst, in many cases that may be better because they drive slower”.

Howard Dembovsky, the chairman of Justice Project South Africa - a non-profit which works towards addressing “corruption and power abuse in law enforcement” - said that traffic police in Johannesburg issued far more fines than their counterparts in Cape Town.

“The Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department issues an average of 300,000 traffic fines per month, whilst Cape Town doesn’t even issue 10% of that.

“One also has to bear in mind that the focus of law enforcement in the two cities doesn’t even remotely resemble one another,” he added.  “In Johannesburg, 98.94% of enforcement is speed prosecution by camera, whilst in Cape Town this would be closer to between 15 and 20%.”

One thing most people I spoke to agreed on was that current accident data is hopelessly inadequate.

Data gives "no coherent picture"

Said Luyt: “The data available on road accidents and fatalities in South Africa gives no coherent picture of what is happening on South Africa’s roads. It is shambolic and cannot be used for any adequate evaluation or planning.”

Added Dembovsky: “The sad fact is that South Africa is thrashing around in the dark and formulating strategies based on next to no scientific data and that is exactly why no progress is being made in reducing road fatalities in this country.

“Despite the pontificating of the Minister of Transport to the contrary, I am of the firm conviction that we are going backwards when it comes to road safety in South Africa. If one bases strategies on thumb sucks, it is silly to complain when those strategies don’t work out.”

While it appears that Western Cape roads may be deadlier than those in Gauteng – and by extension Cape Town is worse than Jo’burg – it is impossible to say so with any conviction on the basis of the available data. Until the authorities get their act together and start collecting proper data that is freely available, the answer will depend on where you live – Jo’burg or Cape Town.

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