A note on contracts of trust on the road

In one of the case studies in our contact sessions for transport policy, students were encouraged to explore the narrative behind this sign in particular. What is the tangible or conceptual meaning of this sign to a road user who has nothing calming his movement? At 60km/h a 12 year old could be injured very badly in the school down the road– about 100m. There were so many issues and discussion points on this one sign, that it became a recurring theme. The sign is the contract of trust, but if it is not honest enough to say “for our kids sake, drive below 60km/h” then all signs say “this is the limit”, or “drive at exactly this speed”. (Photo: Hlulani)

Driving is difficult, walking is great if streets look and feel good, with shade and things to do. Walking and cycling could be more fun than driving if contracts of trust between infrastructure, technology and people are respected and protected.  

While driving there’s so much information to process and much less time to figure life out. Everything moves at a faster pace. A moving sculpture in which one only sees neighbours briefly, with only enough eye contact to recognize and not greet (in time). On a Monday morning, yes, it probably makes sense to long for a rush of blood to the head stuck in traffic. But by thirsty Thursday priorities change dramatically. To such an extent that even gospel celebrities forget that kids play on the road on Monday afternoons. Barely slowing down, the wealthiest seem to be the loudest and most deadly. On average days 40km/h feel so annoying— more annoying than pedestrians who know when they have right of way. Who drives at 40 anyway, let alone on a Thursday? At 60km per hour the impact on adult pedestrian could kill him or her. If it’s a rare toddler crawling around looking for marbles or chasing after a soccer ball: the impact is catastrophic. Even using a metallic sculpture to move around is dangerous just from being inside.

Do you love your children without seatbelts

Those parents drive around with kids unbuckled jumping around between the front seats are the most dangerous. Seatbelts or child-friendly support seating may be a source of complaining for the child, but are quite important. Investing in good quality behavior now, could save their lives on a number of occasions and fronts in their lives. Oh, but do they complain, cry and frustrate parents! On one hand, seatbelts aren’t uncomfortable when a child hits the dashboard once because of an urgent stop. On the other, living in doubt of the marginally worst happening doesn’t sound wise to me at all. Nevertheless, regulators need to be observant and attentive in terms of traffic as a contract of trust. People don’t think straight all the time, and each mode has its own peculiar and unusual issues.

Don’t think people think straight

It seems we all do this weird thing where we overestimate the rational behavior of people around us. 35% or so of all road fatalities are pedestrians in South Africa. Which is just crazy. I’ll need to double check this really. Actually, it’s 38% in 2017 according to the Road Traffic Management Corporation. Where road traffic is a giant contract of trust, pedestrians and cyclists need to feel safe around the driving public.

The role of infrastructure is to provide a number of buffers that protect road users in a simple, universally accessible and comfortable way. Even so, it might be better not to have buffers because then everyone is hyper-responsible for whatever they do– and there is no assumption of safety.

At the same time, motorists need to assure mutual caution and concern throughout their driving life times. Hence the “thank you” hazards on highways are politely nodded with a “flash” of dibright. Or those situations with limited sight distance are easily relieved by a truck driver that indicates to anyone behind him that “hey, there’s space to overtake”.

How far do we go for universal access? Many small towns do not have any provisions for persons with disabilities. The road infrastructure– sidewalks are part of the road– does not nearly touch the needs of persons on wheelchairs if the network is incomplete. More so, the scale and magnitude of limited infrastructure implies that some people are hostages at home because the gravel road can become a dreadful path to roll through. (Photo: Hlulani)

Maybe it’s time for a pedestrian and cycling license

Pedestrians however go-through-the-most partly due to our own natural, unrestrained movement pattern and limited traffic literacy. In addition to the fact that walking and non-motorized transport are not considered as “types of vehicles”.  No one needs a license to walk around the town.

There’s so much information to process when simply crossing a street. A six year old will sprint across without the reasoning that adults have about how fast the cars are coming. Persons with disabilities, have to navigate at a very different pace and surface with specific types of information that might need to be very contrasted for visibility.

An average teenager could easily miscalculate the likelihood that a car is turning at a stop sign, or that a taxi is about to climb in front of him to pick or drop someone off. Then you find those stubborn crossers, who just basically take any and all risk because no motorist will dare hit them. Barely at an intersection, a mother rushes through the four lanes with her little boy; a madala is between cars. Even with the intersection two minutes away, the unbearable heat, and longer day ahead is compellingly convincing in a deeply frustrating way. The weather can force people to cross streets when they don’t really want to; it could easily make things really difficult.

Can impatience on the road be illegal

All of this in the face of impatience from many car and public transport operators, in my observations. When you give pedestrians their right of way by law, drivers can get so impatient they would even try overtake you at the intersection. Even if it places pedestrians at risk, but in cities at least there’s an understanding. In the towns, there’s the tensions between superiority—in car ownership—and inferiority—in non-motorists—complexes. The sociology behind car ownership in Africa is deeply ignored in much of the analyses I’m exploring lately.

What I can say for now is that car use in Africa must be observed with a specific and deep awareness beyond the simplistic “apartheid planning” in South Africa, or colonial planning in Mozambique. Complexes are evident and can be invisible when observed artificially, and with political or historical ignorance. Today what popular narratives argue as “oppression” or “segregation” are only a small part of the wood that keeps this fire burning. New pieces of wood, some dry others wet, from different places and trees have been added to the problem.

“In any case a car is extremely comfortable and air-con, and personal and all that— compared to anything else. Who are you to say I can’t use this thing I’ve earned— first generation car at home; what are you saying? I’ve worked really hard to get here.”

Enough philosophy. The only people I’ve seen with decent guts, are older cyclists, probably 40s and older. These men don’t fear the car, it’s not a thing— without explaining. They do as they please on the road, even the animal drawn cart operators: don’t mess with them either.

What should a regulator do in such a tense political economy of transportation?

There’s also so much vulnerability and liberty to account for as a regulator. Even on a Thursday, the court walkers take a dive in drink and later walk as if the sand is sinking. These are the most vulnerable— drunk pedestrians are more prone to being hit by a car because of a number of factors. What we have not spoken about with this group is why they are so doubtful that someone is equally as “sober” as they are?

Eish, but how else can our country rewrite its history without policy innovations that challenge the current model—or any other policy for that matter?

The Road Accident Beneficiary Scheme is in for a complex ride when implemented. A murky future between human compliance and digitization open up as much risk as opportunity. In addition, to the equal access to legal support and systems will be a running debate. No one can control the outcome of the cases— but everyone should have an opportunity to state their case.

Eish, but how else can our country rewrite its history without policy innovations that challenge the current model—or any other policy for that matter? The Scheme depends heavily on the implementation of a number of other policies and tools– subject to compliance. You know the kind of compliance that makes you frown, but it’s just important to do because its necessary? That’s the kind of child like pain we’re looking forward to at the regulatory level, when implementing these policies.

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