Is profit taking precedence over passengers’ safety?

How do the working conditions and behaviour of minibus-taxi drivers in Johannesburg affect the lives of their passengers? We look at the ongoing study by Lee Randall, at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics and Health Law, at the University of the Witwatersrand, for answers

The most prominent mode of public transport in Johannesburg, and South Africa as a whole, is minibus taxis. This is primarily because of the fairly low cost and convenience that the minibus taxis provide to passengers.

According to Stats SA, about 76,7 percent of people in South Africa rely on public transport, of which 51,0 percent use minibus taxis, followed by buses with 18,1 percent and the least used mode of transport is rail, which accounts for 7,6 percent.

People rely on minibus taxis to travel from and to work, with standards and safety that could be considered as flawed, due to the alarming statistics of road accidents. According to the 2017 Road Safety Annual Report, there were 12 944 reported road fatalities in 2015 – a two-percent increase over 2014. In 2016, a total of 14 071 deaths were reported – an increase of nine percent over 2015.

According to the Decade of Action for Road Safety in South Africa: Mid-term report, by the United Nations General Assembly, about 95 percent of road traffic crashes happen as a direct result of one or more traffic offences.

Similar sentiments are shared in an ongoing study by Lee Randall, a PhD student at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics and Health Law, at the University of the Witwatersrand. The research is titled: Coffins on Wheels: A bioethical study of work conditions, driver behaviour and road safety in the Johannesburg minibus-taxi industry.

The study samples 50 minibus-taxi drivers at 20 ranks in Johannesburg to find out about their working conditions and how they influence the drivers’ behaviour on the roads.

During the interviews, 96 percent of the drivers revealed that they are concerned about crashes, while 84 percent said that they were very concerned. Out of the sample,
44 percent had been involved in one injurious taxi-related accident, while 12 percent had experienced more than one.

Randall notes that the public at large notice and comment on the road violations by minibus-taxi drivers. This is evident from irate letters to editors, and pictures and videos on social media.

Unjustified reasons to break the law

According to the study, the most common violations by minibus-taxi drivers include: shooting red traffic lights, turning from wrong lanes, speeding, driving on the wrong side of the road, driving in the emergency lane, stopping “anywhere, anytime” (including in the middle of roads and intersections) and overloading of passengers.

“These violations happen particularly during peak hours when congestion is at its worst,” she comments.

Some of the drivers who were surveyed admitted to breaking the law. Randall says the reasons behind these violations were related to the working conditions and the pressure they experience in trying to earn their livelihoods.

“Quite a few drivers also reported that the passengers put pressure on them – for instance, to speed or jump red traffic lights in order to get them to work on time, or to stop just anywhere to let them on or off,” she says.

The blame game

Randall points out that the government is responsible for enforcing road traffic laws and needs to do more about policing of moving violations and dangerous and reckless driving.

“It’s also important for government to prioritise taxis, because of the sheer numbers of people they carry. The minibus-taxi industry has a very high mode share in cities all over South Africa and taxi commuters are often breadwinners, so there’s a big multiplier effect every time someone is injured or dies in a taxi crash,” she adds

Randall suggests that the government needs to properly administer systems – such as issuing of operator permits and driving licences, and testing of vehicle roadworthiness – and must urgently address fraud and corruption among its officials.

“It needs to speed up the issuing of operator permits and proactively deal with problems like competition over driving routes, for example, the incidence where violence erupted between rival taxi associations over the new Mall of Africa routes in Midrand.

“This could have been foreseen and avoided. There are some very good initiatives, like the recently introduced Operation Buya Mthetho, which means “bring back the law”, in Joburg. This is paying off and sending a message that government is serious about road safety – for instance, taxis are being impounded if they are found to be stolen, in an unroadworthy condition, not correctly licensed, or if the driver does not have a valid driving licence,” she says.

Hazards in working conditions

However, everything cannot be blamed on the government, or the drivers. As the nature of this business is rough and competitive, taxi associations and taxi owners could also intervene.

The research confirms that the drivers’ poor working conditions are probably contributing to unsafe driving habits.

All the drivers who participated in the study reported being highly stressed on a daily basis, mainly related to their difficulties with earning a decent livelihood. They reported that, out of what the passengers pay, they typically have to pay a daily cash amount to the taxi owner, as well as pay for operating costs like fuel, oil, vehicle washing and traffic fines.

On average, they reported having to pay over R500 to R600 per day. One driver mentioned having to pay up to R1 800 per day if driving a larger vehicle on a busier route.

A few drivers reported being allowed to drive the taxi “for free” on certain days – for example, on a Sunday. This meant that they do not have to pay a fee to the owner for those days, but they still have to cover fuel and other essential costs out of whatever fares are paid by the passengers.

Some described taxi owners as greedy, caring more about their profits than about the safety of drivers or passengers.

Fatigue and intoxicated drivers a major cause of road accidents

Since the minibus-taxi industry involves a lot of informal administration, there is an abuse of rights and regulations. The excessive working hours and fatigue are huge crash risks, and having highly fatigued drivers transporting a dozen or more people at a time is an unacceptable safety breach.

According to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, working hours should not exceed nine hours a day or 45 hours per week, and any overtime or work on public holidays should be paid at one and a half times the basic rate. “In the minibus-taxi industry this doesn’t seem to be adhered to at all. Drivers are being exploited,” she mentions.

The 2017 Road Safety Annual report also states fatigue and sleepiness as common cause of accidents, which is still a major challenge on South African roads.

“There are also stories about taxi drivers who are ’nyaope’ addicts or drive while intoxicated. Frighteningly, some drivers mentioned that taxi owners may favour drug users because they ‘care less about road laws’ and focus more on earning money for their next ‘fix’. They thus maximise profits for the owners,” reveals Randall.

The unfit vehicles which are used to transport people are also a contributing factor. While about a quarter of the survey respondents reported driving taxis less than five years old, 50 percent drove taxis that are five to 11 years old, and another quarter drove taxis that are more than 11 years old.

“Numerous drivers mentioned having to drive vehicles with defects – the most common ones being problems with headlights, windscreens, doors, seats, tyres and brakes. One driver made the point that if he spoke up about such defects it was likely that the owner would simply take the keys away from him and employ another driver instead. Other respondents mentioned fraud and corruption in testing centres, which meant that defects were ignored rather than fixed,” Randall notes.

She suggests that the government needs to closely regulate the industry further by subsidising it in recognition of the valuable service it renders to the economy.

She notes that businesses come to a standstill when taxis are on strike. This includes highway blockages and violence, which sometimes ends in fatalities.

“It’s unfair that bus services are heavily subsidised, even though some buses drive around almost empty, when the reality is that far more commuters use taxis which get no subsidy at all. It does seem likely, however, that taxi owners will resist the conditions that come with subsidisation – like having to keep their vehicles in a clean and roadworthy state, retire vehicles when they reach a certain age, pay taxes on their profits, and offer fair wages and work conditions to their drivers,” Randall concludes.

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.

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