Column: The trouble with the Law
The other night brought a horrible reminder of the “good old days.” It is hard to forget that we South Africans used to live in a police state, with those all-powerful boys in blue and their omnipotent ability to whisk you away to a detention centre with who-knew-what consequences, even though you were a law abiding citizen.
There I was, driving along in peaceful bliss returning from a restaurant, gorgeous blonde in the passenger seat, in the perfect and pristine BMW Z4. King of the carefree, perfect, world car manufacturers bestow us motoring hacks occasional glimpses of. My driver's licence, pristine and sparkly new after a recent renewal, safely in my wallet.
I must say the long, languid meal had deliberately not included alcohol, since I wanted to glow in the pleasure of taking the Z4 along the scenic Atlantic drive. Taking it easy, rounding the corner, and basking in the gorgeous glow of the perfection of an unseasonably delicious warm spring evening, all was at peace.
Suddenly, flashing blue lights and men in glow-in-the-dark bibs waving those glowing cones signalled me to slow down, causing that immediate tight, empty, dull ache in the pit of my stomach. The roadblock. This was not even Christmas bonus season! Why is it I immediately felt fear and dread?
"Yes sir, no sir"
No outstanding fines to my name, a pristine car, no alcohol in my system at all and still paranoia and fear uncharacteristically pumped adrenaline through my veins. Managing to just stay on the quivering-voice side of sheer blind terror with a quick “yes sir, no sir”, the customary vehicle scrutiny and temporary blindness generously provided by their ingenious hand-held versions of the World War II aerial searchlight, I was waved through.
It might not have been this way. Remember, just because you are paranoid, does not mean they are not out to get you.
Park in town, have your highly trained, toothless parking assistant help “meneer” into the bay with the customary helpful arm-waving, have him pocket your five-rand coin and promise to sort things out. Arrive back at your car to the toothless grin and with much flailing of limbs to assist you out of your parking bay, you happily drive off.
A little ignorant of the fact that, while he was off on his smoke break celebrating your five rand by making a burnt offering in the neck of a beer bottle, a traffic warden had celebrated your visit to town with a pink "thank you" note. Toothless had, of course, saved you the embarrassment of receiving a ticket by thoughtfully pocketing it and removing the glue from your window with his trusty broken beer bottle neck.
Trouble is, you had just been served a summons, blissfully unaware you would later be found to be in contempt of court.
Have this happen a few times and your arrival at the aforementioned police roadblock turns out differently. You are presented with a warrant for your arrest, put in custody and locked up to temporarily become the big guy in the cell’s new bitch. If this is on a weekend, expect your tax rands to maybe cover extended board and lodging.
That speeding fine you ignored and the summons that got delivered to the wrong address didn’t help matters much.
Of course, we all want the drunk drivers arrested and we want unroadworthy cars and trucks taken off our streets, but the fact of the matter is that these incidents erode our respect and admiration for the law. It feels we are again in a police state where the law abiding get picked on and persecuted and where it is us versus them.
Not for safety
Why do we have speeding fines? Those who can remember back far enough, consider why they came into being. To save our lives? Hardly. There was a fuel crisis and Government instituted draconian speed laws to reduce fuel consumption. No safety bullshit back then.
Trouble was, it was lucrative and soon we had Koos in blue hiding behind bushes in a neighbourhood near you. Jo'burg to Durban became an "us and them" contest to see how fast we could get there without a ticket, and so the trouble began. At least back then they stopped you and you continued on your journey at a more subdued pace. But the game was on.
Silly laws enforced by trapping in safe areas (mostly under the shade of a tree to keep Koos cool and behind a bush for him to pounce out from) and the constant feeling of entrapment made us feel that speed trapping was never in our interests.
Lo, even today, a hidden trap takes a photo of you speeding on a safe road with kilometres of visibility at an arbitrary speed limit. A photo that you are not even aware of until weeks later. How could this possibly be in the interests of promoting our safety?
But why K53?
K53 driving tests emphasise more on circling the car several times than on driving safety. That will surely ensure safety? Impossible to book for and hazardous to pass on technical crap, the main goal of the K53 form of bureaucracy seems to be to gouge us with further fee mongering for the authorities. No wonder there are unlicenced drivers and bought licences.
We feel persecuted while real dangerous driving transgressions are ignored as there are not enough boys in blue to police them as they are all seemingly consumed in collecting the fines at roadblocks or setting up hidden speed traps. Safety? Pfah! In our best interests? Hardly.
The draconian system creates fear. The fear creates, in turn, opportunities for the corrupt. A powerful underpaid cop with low moral faculties is soon tempted into issuing a “spot fine” and emptying our wallets of seemingly surplus cash. We have all heard stories of this happening, it is becoming rife. Hardly surprising, is it, considering the system?
Causes of most accidents? Speed? No. Driver error. Inconsiderate driving, inattentiveness, insufficient training of our drivers. These are the real problems. Effective policing is the answer. Yes, have roadblocks, remove drunk drivers, remove unroadworthy drivers, but make us trust our cops. Make us believe they are on our side, protecting us. Remove the "us versus them".
Hands up, those of you who don’t speed. I thought so. So, it is okay to break the silly rules that don’t apply to you, is it? Aren’t we training our public to be law breakers? What if we only had traffic laws we could all respect? What if you could drive fast where it was safe, with speed strictly enforced in danger zones and near children and the like? Food for thought, huh?
Let’s have the ghost squads of unmarked traffic cars, but let’s also have the majority of marked patrol cars on the prowl for unsafe driving, policing and removing the real, dangerous offenders. Not petty fining of safe, high performance cars on safe freeways. Let’s have them offer advice to motorists when pulling us over, not fulfilment of quotas or, worse, the dreaded spot fine.
Change the system. The fine system has not worked. Create real policing with real consequence.
Make it easy and quick to legally get a licence, but godawful to replace if you lose it. Make motorists lose resentment for the cops and look up to them with respect. Make them a true community service.
Repeal laws not being enforced, arbitrarily enforced, or not of real simple safety concern. Make the few remaining laws about our real safety and then ensure they are simple and upheld...
Then and only then will our roads become safer.