January 5, 2013 in Nation/World

Death travels South Africa’s roads

Robyn Dixon Los Angeles Times

JOHANNESBURG – Like fatalities in a savage little war, the casualties on South Africa’s roads during the December-January holiday period are reported daily.

There was the father of three whose vehicle veered off a broken bridge; the unlicensed 16-year-old boy who crashed what was reportedly a stolen SUV with a dozen teens in the back, killing himself and six others; the 78-year-old man walking to a cemetery with his daughter on New Year’s Day who was cut in half by a car involved in an illegal drag race.

As bad as things are during the holiday period, which falls in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, the rest of the year is scarcely better. Unsafe cars, poor public transportation, speeding and drunken driving make South Africa’s roads among the most dangerous in the world, with a death rate that is more than double that in the United States and four times that on European roads.

On Thursday, two-time Olympic mountain biker Burry Stander was coasting down a hill in the steamy coastal city of Durban when a commuter minibus did a U-turn in front of him. Stander crashed into the side of the bus and became the latest road fatality, one whose death rocked South Africa’s cycling community.

Tributes flowed in from around the country Friday for the extraordinary 25-year-old, who finished fifth in the men’s cross-country at the London Olympics last year and did more than anyone else in the country to promote the sport of mountain biking.

Competitive cyclists couldn’t help remembering an accident almost two years ago when another internationally competitive South African cyclist, Carla Swart, 23, was hit by a truck and killed in a road accident while training to make the 2012 Olympic team.

“It’s an absolutely devastating blow,” Charles Roberts, chairman of KwaZulu-Natal province’s mountain biking commission, told local television after Stander’s death.

South Africa’s holiday season road toll for December stood at 1,279, said Ashref Ismail, a spokesman for the government’s Road Traffic Management Corp. As terrible as that figure is, it is down from some recent years and not that much worse than the monthly average, which hovers around 1,100.

After the 2007-’08 holiday season, when there were 1,261 deaths, the government pledged to halve holiday season road deaths by 2015. Critics say the plan has failed, and they accuse the government of doing too little to cut road deaths.

The World Health Organization, relying on data from 2007, put South Africa’s fatality rate at 33 per 100,000, exceeded by only a few countries, most of them in Africa. The highest rate, according to the WHO, is in the small African nation of Eritrea, where 48 people out of every 100,000 are killed annually.

The rate for the United States was just under 14 in 2007, but has dropped to below 11.

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