Who is the real idiot behind the wheel?

This week I was waiting on a pavement in the Cape Town CBD, waiting for a lift.

A car moseyed up one-way Long Street, slowed, stopped. Reversed ten or twenty metres, made a right turn and proceeded on its way. Luckily there were no cars right behind it, and all was well.

I smiled, thinking: “Only in South Africa…”

And it is amusing, in its way.

But really it is indicative of all that is wrong on our roads, where this festive season 1 755 people were killed.

The newspapers and radio stations are full of the usual pontificating about causes and solutions. One issue, it is said, is speeding. The debate goes like this: speeding kills (the authorities) versus speeding doesn’t kill, it’s all the other people’s fault (the callers to radio stations).

As someone who drives to work every morning on one of Cape Town’s scarier roads, I have some thoughts about this speeding thing. At the time I come to work, between 5.30am and 6am, the M5 inbound in filled with a majority of cars doing around 100km/h, which is the speed limit on that road. There is always a small minority going considerably faster than that, and there is another small minority in very old cars, going much slower.

This is the pattern I observe, morning after morning: A person doing 100km/h wishes to pass the jalopy. The person doing 150km/h does not allow that passing to happen because there is never time to get in to the gap. The people doing 100km/h eventually get frustrated and pull out into the fast lane and stay there. The speedsters then weave between the jalopies and the frustrated, causing a bunch of near-miss crashes as they career towards town.

Note that all three parties here are not obeying the rules of the road: the speedsters, the drivers of unroadworthy vehicles AND the frustrated hoggers of the fast lane. And of course all of them have some excuse to justify that.

But all that lawlessness is causing unpredictability for everyone. When we set out in our cars, we are working on the implicit assumption that everyone will stick to the rules. We need to exercise due caution, of course, just in case. As my husband’s grandfather told him: “To be safe, remember that everyone else on the road is an idiot. And you are on the road too.”

In South Africa our particular brand of idiocy is guaranteed to cause road carnage: not one of us thinks that all the rules apply to us personally, all the time. And before you start protesting how law-abiding you are, ask yourself these little questions:

* Have you ever crossed a road at a place where you weren’t supposed to?

* Have you ever walked a dog without a leash in a an area the clearly demands leads?

* Have you ever quietly watered a garden when there were restrictions in place?

* Have you ever had a quick smoke in an area that is supposed to be non-smoking?

* Have you ever used the work photocopier to do your child’s homework?

We all say these are small things, they aren’t really important. We say the rule is stupid, and if it is stupid I don’t have to do it.

The thing is though: you do have to do it. And when you don’t, the trust that we should be able to place in each other is broken. And, on our roads, people who don’t deserve it perish every day.

So, rather than calling the radio station to say that the speed limits are stupid, try to work quietly on your own idiocy. That is the only thing that will fix this mess.

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