At the end of our street in Johannesburg’s sleepy northern suburbs, a sign marks a roundabout called “Stef’s Circle”. One Friday night, not long after I moved here, I heard a screech followed by a thump: a car had flown over the circle and into the wall of a neighbouring property.
This would be the first thump of many. Cars would careen off the roundabout and through walls with disturbing regularity. An acquaintance told me about nearly crashing at that very spot while driving home after a night of heavy drinking. Never mind that the roundabout was built to calm traffic after a teenage girl, Stef, was killed by a speeding car.
When I first moved to South Africa, I worried about the crime. You hear terrible stories, and the atmosphere is ominous: driving through Johannesburg at night, the streets are dark and empty, and the houses have high walls topped with electric fences. Signs warn of “hijacking hot spots”. But no one told me about the drivers. According to the World Health Organisation, there are 134 road deaths per 100,000 vehicles a year in South Africa. In Canada, where I’m from, there are ten. This is a rainbow nation of reckless motorists, racing like demons or following so closely you can count nose hairs.
The roads are lethal partly because so many South Africans drive drunk. The country has the highest proportion of alcohol-related road deaths in the world, at 58% (compared with 16% in Britain and 31% in America). At the weekend it is safe to assume the roads are teeming with drunk drivers. Even morning trips can be a hazard: a colleague was broadsided by a drunk driver while heading to the airport for an early flight.
South Africa has both a drinking culture and a car culture. It is a pain to get anywhere without wheels. Because the apartheid regime went to great lengths to keep black and white people apart, cities sprawl over vast areas. Public transport is terrible. Privately owned minibus taxis ply key routes during rush hours but bus and rail routes are limited. Private taxicabs are scarce, expensive, inconvenient and unreliable. At the end of the night, it is easier to climb into your car and drive home, even if you’ve been drinking.
It is also socially acceptable. Witnessing South African attitudes towards drink-driving is like stepping back in time. Once we tried to take keys away from a visibly stumbling friend at the end of a long night – as public information films in Canada tell you to. Our friend was baffled and hostile. Nobody questions the idea that everybody should drive home after a boozy party. Friends share a laugh about not remembering how they got their cars home the night before.
Few of those arrested for drink-driving are convicted. Corruption is one problem: if caught, drivers can sometimes pay a bribe to evade arrest or have the police file “lost”. The system is also inefficient. Long delays in getting blood-alcohol test results often lead to cases being thrown out of court.
But attitudes toward drink-driving are starting to change. Announcing the latest road-death toll a few weeks ago – grim as usual – South Africa’s transport minister said she wanted to have drink-driving classified as a crime as serious as rape and murder.
The arrival of Uber could be a game changer. In the big cities where the ride-sharing app is available, people who would never take a private taxi are regularly using it; friends who once would have driven home after a big night now pointedly take Uber. As an international brand, Uber came with cachet. The service is cheap, convenient and safe. Uber said it grew much faster during its first year in Johannesburg and Cape Town than it did in San Francisco and London. There is no longer an excuse to drive drunk.
Stef’s Circle has been gradually reinforced over the past few years: it is ringed by metal barricades and the road has rumble strips to slow approaching drivers. All of this (and Uber) is helping. The number of traffic accidents remains absurdly high and there seems to be no decline in fatalities. But with views about drink-driving starting to shift, the road ahead will hopefully look a little less terrifying.