Our Driving Skills – Minimising Horrific Accidents

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By Andrew Matjila ONE OF the golden rules of driving I learned at a very early age is ” keep left” of the road. I have lived with this rule throughout my driving life, and have come to appreciate its value and importance. I ought to know, for I learned to drive a car at age ten, and at age fourteen, I was a competent driver on the road, albeit unlicensed. But that was way back in the early 1940’s during the Second World War, when cars on busy country roads came at the rate of two an hour, or one every four hours. Let me get back to the golden rule. Years ago in the Eastern Cape, local police at a town had problems with motorcars crossing the main bridge just outside town. Accidents occurred almost daily on that particular bridge as drivers were competing for “first across”. An engineer eventually came up with a bright idea in 1927, by drawing a white line dead centre of the bridge, to make sure that every driver would keep to the left of that white line. It worked, and the idea took root all over South Africa where roads were being tarred, to draw a white line on bridges. Later, the white line was found to be so effective that it became conventional practice to apply it fully on the road to make sure that every motorist kept to one side of the road, the left side, at all times. It has since become standard road marking throughout the world. Less than two decades after that line was drawn I learned to drive a car, a Vauxhall to be exact. Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones to begin at that early age. But the big issue here is, I was taught the golden rule first: “Keep left.” I shall begin with this rule, because together with it, I learned to watch the ‘antics’ of many a driver ahead of me, and the impatient guy behind who wants to overtake at the wrong time and place. And I have learned a lot during all these years while driving behind and in front of other motorists. Among Namibian drivers, especially those from the northern regions, there are very few who can drive carefully. Driving behind many of them, one gets very scared at times, and worse still if the vehicle happens to be a Combi or a minibus, loaded or unloaded. In the city of Windhoek, hair-raising situations occur around the clock, because of drivers who either do not know what they are doing, or are busy with their cell phones. Quite recently I had stopped behind a big car in John Meinert Street. When the traffic light signalled green, the car in front of me failed to move. I blasted the hooter to draw attention, but still nothing happened. I reversed and came round to pass, only to find that the driver, a lady, was busy talking on her cell phone, oblivious of what was going on around her. Really, death stalks our streets because of cell phones. My Golden Rule Keep left, but keep left of the white line! And this many drivers often do not understand. I have seen countless drivers in the city, and on country roads in Namibia driving in the CENTRE of the road. This is very dangerous. Keeping left means that “the driver must be able to SEE the white line” all the time while driving. If the driver cannot SEE the line, he or she is driving on it. If this happens at night, this driver is not sure of what danger lies on the oncoming vehicle, perhaps, pipes sticking out from the load it may be carrying. I think of these things because I was taught to strickly keep to the left side of the road and white line. How Do Horrific Accidents Such as the Grootfontein Carnage Happen? There are several reasons for such accidents, but I shall not touch on the more obvious ones such as drinking while driving, although they are major contributors to accidents: – Drivers who drive in the centre of the road – at night they are incapable of estimating how far the oncoming vehicle is from “the centre of the road”. The result is two vehicles coming to blows when passing each other. Over the years, we had such accidents at Kalkrand in the mid-eighties, forty kilometres south of Keetmanshoop, also in the eighties, on the Gobabis road, Swakopmund road, Windhoek/Okahandja road and others. Name any road in Namibia and you can remember a horrific accident that took place on it. Some drivers in Namibia keep on the middle of the road. Many arrive safely by shear luck. Note: When driving at night, I slow down in the face of oncoming traffic, and I make sure I can see the white line clearly as the strips pass by one at a time, at least two meters away from my car. – Drivers who are not conscientious, meaning: those who do not have FEAR while driving. A car is a dangerous weapon in careless hands, and should be handled with great circumspection. Fear keeps a person not only alive on the road, but alert. Many people who drink and drive at the same time are trying to break this fear, but earn themselves a weakening of the nervous system, and the result is lack of focus. Fear keeps a driver watchful for the antics of the one in front, for antics they often are, with the driver in front talking to the passengers, or even canoodling with a girlfriend, oblivious of the other motorists who want to pass. – In the of minibuses, there are drivers who enjoy the company of their passengers. There is a general atmosphere of festivity, loud talking, laughter, exchange of pieces of KFC, dumpies, and what have you. All these destruct the driver from conscientious concentration. When it comes it’s “whoops’, and it’s over in seconds. Buses must have rules pasted inside where passengers should be alerted not to interfere with the driver, and if they do, it is at their own peril. – Drivers who ignore Road Signs or simply disobey them. Again the element of FEAR does not register, and the result is often devastating. Danger signs that warn of curves, no overtaking, narrow bridges, bends, T-junctions and so on, must be respected and obeyed without question, if a motorist wants to escape death. Along northern roads, grass and shrubs grow very fast this time of the year, and the Road Signs become hidden in them. A clever driver must use own intuition to stay alive, and high concentration cannot be overemphasized. – Drivers who are exhausted but want to carry on: It is over a thousand kilometres to Katima Mulilo and Johannesburg from Windhoek. The Inter-Cape Mainliner has more than one driver per bus on such trips, and keep strictly to time-schedules for changes, to make sure that no driver will continue the journey when he is tired. With the minibuses, it is always one driver, tired or not. Add to the exciting things that take place in the vehicle and you have a delayed accident that develops inside the Combi from one stop to the other. – Drivers who are inexperienced but want to undertake demanding trips: Immediately after acquiring a driver’s licence, they are behind the wheel of the newly acquired BMW, and they hasten “home” to the reserves to show the family what progress they have made. On the journey they come to an unusual situation – a monolith articulated truck, belching a pall of black smoke on the side, is climbing a hill slowly, grinding heavy gears. Without thinking, and checking the uphill ahead, the BMW roars automatically to overtake, but unfortunately, it runs smack into the face of a 1960 Chev Bakkie. A tank this, by today’s standards. The Chev tears into the BMW like a hot knife through butter, with its driver suffering minor injuries, while everyone in the luxury car lies dead in the bushes. – Drivers who do not use seat belts, or insist on their passengers using them. – Road Hogs and Speedsters: Drive behind taxis anywhere in Namibia and one will notice the following: – The drivers are only concentrating on passengers, and not so much on their driving skills. They do not care about the other motorist. – They drive slowly where they should drive faster, at least 60 kph, and very fast where they should drive slowly. At rush hour when they compete for passengers, everyone else can wait. They’ll overtake anywhere, or even park against the rules. On the open road, I have very often come across “farm cars”, i.e. vehicles which are generally confined to the farm because of age. But occasionally they ‘steal’ to cross to the other farm or so. Their speeds never exceed sixty because of engine problems, wear and age. A convoy of cars will follow this fellow for miles because of road signs that forbid overtaking at that point. But imagine the road obstruction to other motorists! – On the other hand one has speedsters who do 180, 200 and more on the road, missing other vehicles by fractions of meters without concern for life. – Drivers who can’t ‘take off’: One can watch at any intersection in Windhoek to see what happens when the green light opens – many cars crawl out of it, seemingly unaware of the fact that the light will soon switch to caution and red. Unnecessary delays and obstructions occur daily. Many of the local drivers cannot honestly drive a car in the Gauteng area. It will be a disaster. “Take off” means a car should move out of the intersection on first gear in such power as to allow others behind you to also get out. But nay, I have seen myself behind six cars at a red light, and then missing out on the green light, because the drivers ahead wouldn’t be bothered by those behind them. We should go to other places and learn something. And here I am not talking speed, but about avoiding pile ups caused by the 4 kph fraternity, when they should take off by at least 30 kph. The Danger of Trucks on Our Roads Years ago before independence, I suggested that all trucks driving through Namibia must stop travelling after 8pm. There are rests all along our roads for truckers to rest, make some food and sleep the night away, Bot no, this they do not do. They want to reach Windhoek the same night and, tired, exhausted, sleepy and hungry, they step on the diesel until they are awakened by a terrible roar, when their vehicle impacts on another, often too late to do anything about it. Most horrific accidents in Namibia are those between trucks and minibuses, trucks and cars, minibuses and minibuses. Many people die in such accidents. A truck driver travelling from Johannesburg to Windhoek has to contend with driving 1400 plus kilometres, or 1928 km via Upington. For the Inter-Cape, three drivers are utilized for this journey, whereas for many truckers, only one or two drivers are utilized. The law should stop this. A Golden Rule must be laid down – 3 drivers for a truck travelling from Johannesburg to Windhoek. And, if some companies complain about the costs involved, let them tell us whether costs are more important that human life. If this is not an option, then all trucks must be grounded from our roads from 8pm of every night. Keeping Left Everyone being taught to drive a car must be instructed about the importance of the white line or multiple lanes where they occur, and warned against the danger of driving in the middle of the road. Defensive Driving Good judgement, Skill, Foresight: First of all one must develop the FEAR factor in cars, “They can kill”, and that is a fact. Secondly, one must develop the sense to THINK for the other driver. One must suspect immediately that the driver of the car in front is not concentrating, is sick or drunk, or dead, when the car is moving from side to side. Evasive action must then be taken immediately. I learned at a very young driver’s age to keep hands at “ten to two” on the sterring wheel, and never lower than “quarter to three”. To develop the skill to do many things at the same time requires high concentration. “Eyes on road, off the rear-view mirror, eyes on the side mirrors, and then turning them almost like those of a chameleon to focus in front: then quickly turning to left, and right and coming back again onto the road ahead: quickly stealing onto the dash board to check on temperature, petrol, and other gadgets, all in one clean sweep, and then on the road again. This is conscientious driving of the highest calibre, and failure spells disaster. Many a motorist assumes that the other driver must also do his/her part and keep alert. Unfortunately, taking the other driver for granted can cost lives. In the case of minibuses on country roads at night, the driver must consider an oncoming vehicle as a potential danger and immediately reduce speed to 80 or even lower if he has reason to suspect that the vehicle might be a truck. Keeping strickly left will ensure that if the oncoming vehicle is towing another one, which will as usual be ‘swinging’ on and off the white line, there will be a good chance of missing it. Approaching Turn-offs – the Indicator Many of our drivers in Namibia only indicate when they take the turn. This is very wrong. In Southern Africa, we saw the first indicators in 1959. Not that they were the first on cars, no. But in the Pretoria/Johannesburg area, all cars were ordered to install indicators and use them as from that year onwards. The age of the indicators came with its own rules. – Putting on the indicator at least 200 m before the turnoff will warn the driver behind of your intention, and avoid unnecessary hard braking and swerving. Many drivers in Windhoek indicate on the turnoff. That is not the purpose of the indicator. – Turning must take place with caution and a watchful eye, and not the taxi-kind of turning that we experience all year round in the city, where cars stop at turnoffs without warning. – Vehicles towing others, especially Breakdown Services and heavy vehicles like trucks and tractors, must have special equipment such as triangles, red warning flags, etc., on, to warn other motorists. At night trucks towing others must have special flashing warning lights on to warn motorists from a distance. Indicators fore and aft must be on from start to the end of the journey. If such lights are not installed on a vehicle especially at night, an accident can easily happen. Beware the Other Driver Darkness is danger in itself anywhere. Even dangerous animals prefer to operate at night like thieves and murderers. One should learn to recognise potentially dangerous drivers and steer clear of them. Even when severely provoked, one should not try to retaliate, because it may end up in tragedy. Watch out for the following: – Any driver behind the wheel of a fully loaded bakkie without side-mirrors, because his/her range of vision will be limited. – Vehicles that appear rusted, oily, smoking heavily, parts missing. – Overloaded vehicles with passengers clearly enjoying themselves. There are many cases of people going to attend funerals, who end up at their own funerals because no one cared about the condition of the vehicle they were travelling in. – Vehicles to the north often seen with loads of goods on their roofs, or over-stacked trailers and donkey-carts moving near the road shoulder are a sure danger to any motorist. – Heavy loaded trucks are always a danger to motorists and should be avoided at all costs. It is never safe to follow a truck, because its double wheels can pick up a stone and throw it back at a motorist with the force of a cannon. – Cars carrying children with pets and toys, their drivers are not concentrating. – Vehicles with many dents and heavy scratches. The driver may be accident-prone or generally careless. – Vehicles with many unnecessary stickers on windows, many purposeless pillows at the back, a large number of passengers with heavy music. The driver is usually busy with the crowd. – A driver who obstructs and does not allow you to pass. Slow down and let him get far ahead. – A vehicle that ‘wanders’ about the road, like a truck being towed with a chain or rope. It may have a faulty steering or suspension, or the driver may be drunk or sleepy. – Accidents happen between dusk and dawn. – During morning and evening peak hours. – At closing time for bars, Cuca-Shops, hotels, clubs etc. – In the afternoons when children come out of school. – After large gatherings such as political rallies, soccer matches, functions. – Weekends when alcohol usage increases. – At holiday time when most motorists concentrate on sight-seeing, friends, new cars and experiences rather than on their driving skills. – At the end of the day, it is up to each and every individual driver to guarantee not only his/her life, but the lives of those in his/her vehicle. They are all in his/her hands, and he/she can snuff them out like the light of a candle – within a split second. So, where do we go from here with terrible deaths on Namibian roads? And worse still, death that often happens on straight roads and unexpected places? A new generation of road signs specifically for road users in the north must see the light of day. International signs confuse our people because in many cases they learn them only to acquire licenses. We need ‘Home-grown signs’ that tell it in clear, unambiguous terms, and in very bright colours: Examples- In the Caprivi Region: “Saba Lifu – Mota ya bulaya (Fear death – Cars can kill) “Usike wa bulaya batu – Bulaya nako (Don’t kill people – kill time) All other regions should follow suit with roads signs that shout the message clear from a distance. International signs will remain mainly for visitors who do not know the area. On our national roads signs must exhort motorists to really take care: Take care. Your vehicle can kill people Are you not driving too fast? (Such a sign will nudge passengers to look into the speed-clock of the driver to see at what speed he/she is travelling. Passengers have the right to tell their driver to slow down or not to overtake.) How long have you been driving? Take it easy. If you are towing another vehicle, mind the others. Oshakati is not so far away. Take it easy and drive slow, Mind the other road users, they need the road too. Don’t be a bully on the road. Share with other motorists. You may have a death wish. Some of us want to live. Go slow. These signs must be bold, clear, and large enough to be seen even at night, at least four metres from the road shoulder. One sign in English must be followed by one in the local vernacular of every region. The costs are too high? Then think of the costs of the President having to travel to such accident sites to sympathize in solidarity with citizens who mourn their loved ones. In the short term it may be expensive, but in the long term, it will be life saving. In the immediate, for Christmas, the Road Safety Council should design a special sticker for motorists which should be pasted inside the vehicle at a strategic point, the dashboard preferably, where the driver can read it all times without being distracted. This sticker should convey messages such as: Driver, Be alert at all times. Avoid unnecessary discussions while driving. Answer most questions from passengers with a nod. Slow down, slow down, when in doubt. An extra passenger is not a bonus. Have you checked tyre pressure, lights, oil and water? Are you tired? Are you hungry? Are you too full? Are you feeling drowsy? The people with you depend on you. Such short messages should keep a driver on his/her toes at all times, and traffic officers should check vehicles to make sure that the sticker is displayed on their dashboards. We wish all of you a safe Christmas and a careful return to work in the new year of 2007.