At the end of our street in Johannesburg’s sleepy northern suburbs, a homemade sign marks a little roundabout called “Stef’s Circle.” Late one Friday night, not long after moving to South Africa, I heard a screech and a resounding thump: a car had flown over the circle and into the perimeter wall of a neighbouring property.
This would be the first thump of many. On weekend mornings, the roundabout would appear trashed from the night before: road signs knocked off their posts, a cement bin in the centre of the circle shattered into smithereens. 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 it 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 at some intersections warn of “hijacking hot spots.” But no one warned me about the drivers. According to the World Health Organisation, there are 134 road deaths per 100,000 vehicles a year in South Africa, compared with ten a year in Canada, where I’m from. This is a rainbow nation of reckless motorists, a scourge that cuts across race and class. They race like demons, zipping around you via the oncoming lane, or following so closely you can count nose hairs.
Most frighteningly, South Africans very often drive drunk. The country has the highest proportion of alcohol-related road deaths in the world, at 58% (compared to 16% for Britain or 31% for the United States). At weekends, especially at the end of the month after payday, it is safe to assume the roads are teeming with drink-drivers. Best to act proactively, as if everyone were trying to take you out. Even morning trips can be a hazard: a colleague was broadsided by a drunk driver in Cape Town while heading to the airport for an early flight.
South Africa is a country with a drinking culture and a car culture. It is a real pain to get anywhere without wheels. Cities sprawl over a vast territory – the apartheid regime went to great lengths to keep black and white people living far away from each other. Public transit was next to non-existent, and remains terrible today. Privately owned minibus taxis ply key routes during rush hours – they are another hazard of the roads – but bus and rail routes are extremely limited. There are very few private taxicabs, and they are expensive, inconvenient and unreliable. You can’t just hail one off the street. At the end of the night, it is easier to climb into your car and drive home, even if you’ve been drinking.
There is also a broad social acceptability. Witnessing South African attitudes towards drink-driving is like stepping back in time. Once, not long after moving here, we tried to take keys away from a visibly stumbling friend at the end of a long night. This is the sort of socially responsible gesture that public information films back home in Canada tell you to do. In South Africa our friend was baffled and hostile to the notion. There was no question that everyone would drive after a boozy party. Friends would share a laugh about not remembering how they got their cars home the night before.
Such behaviour comes with near-impunity. Very few people who are arrested for drink-driving are actually convicted. Corruption is a serious factor: if caught, drivers can sometimes pay a bribe to evade arrest or have the police file “lost”. There are often problems with evidence, including long delays in getting blood alcohol test results, leading to cases being thrown out of court.
But despite all of this, in the past few years, attitudes toward drink-driving are starting to change. Announcing the holiday road-death toll a few weeks ago – it was grim as usual – South Africa’s transport minister said she wanted to have drink-driving reclassified to be as serious a crime 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. As an international brand, Uber came with cachet and intrigue. The service is cheap, convenient and relatively safe (there have been attacks on Uber drivers by other taxi drivers who resent the competition). Uber said it grew much faster during its first year in Johannesburg and Cape Town than it did in San Francisco and London. Friends who once would have driven home after a big night now pointedly take Uber. Diligent hosts make sure their guests are Uber-ing. There is no longer an excuse to drive drunk.
The roundabout near our house, Stef’s Circle, has been gradually reinforced over the past few years: adorned with reflector lights, ringed by metal barricades, the road embedded with rumble strips to slow drivers upon approach. All of this (and Uber) is helping. Overall the number of road accidents in South Africa 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.