The reduction in the number of road deaths in SA over the festive season seems to suggests that the country’s perennial road carnage is finally being reversed, but analysts are sceptical.

Transport Minister Jeff Radebe has described the final count of road deaths over the festive season as “the first real drop”. He said yesterday the total number of people who died had dropped to 1275 in 2008-09 from 1851 in 2007-08.

Over the period, the number of fatalities fell 31,12% and fatal crashes decreased 33,8%.

Gauteng showed the biggest decrease (49,61%) in the number of fatalities, while Limpopo was the only province that recorded an increase (3,21%).

But Rob Handfield-Jones, head of public affairs at the Automobile Association of SA (AA), remains wary, saying the low number of road fatalities does not mean that national roads are safer.

Handfield-Jones says the economic downturn, not effective police enforcement, was responsible for the decline in road deaths this time round.

Tony Twine, an economist at Econometrix, shares this view. He says SA has had the third successive Christmas of economic slowdown.

“It seems likely that lower traffic density is being driven by economic hardship,” says Twine, and that people stayed at home as a result.

Kobus Labuschagne, research group leader at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says lower traffic volumes was one of the reasons for the decrease in the number of fatalities.

Handfield-Jones says people took shorter trips than before when economic conditions were more favourable.

By travelling shorter distances, people are unlikely to get involved in accidents resulting from fatigue or mechanical failure, he says. However, transport department spokesman Collen Msibi has played down the reduction in traffic volumes and the scepticism around the latest reduction in road deaths.

“Whether there is an increase or decrease of traffic volumes is neither here nor there.

“The point is that the lives of our people are being saved on the roads, and certainly the hard work of the officers has played a major role in this decrease,” Msibi says.

“We attribute the decrease in the death toll to the hard work of the law enforcement officers, particularly in terms of their visibility, as well as to the mounting of law enforcement activities throughout the country.”

Handfield-Jones, unconvinced, says the risk of dying on SA’s roads remains high. If one compares the fatalities per 100-million vehicle kilometres, SA was at 12,02 the last time the government released statistics in 2006.

The US’s stood at 0,9, meaning that South Africans are about 14 times more likely to be killed on roads than their US counterparts.

“Since SA’s government has stopped releasing this statistic, we are not able to compare our current road safety risk with previous years, nor with other countries,” Handfield-Jones says.

He says the government has instead chosen to use fatalities per 100000 people.

But this is not an expression of risk.

“We’re not sure what it expresses,” he says, adding that fatalities per 100-million vehicle kilometres expresses the absolute risk of dying on the roads.

Labuschagne says the traffic authorities should not rest on their laurels because of the drop in the number of fatalities, but need to work hard at improving the quality of accident records.

He says “real problems” — including road signage, driver behaviour and road conditions — need to be addressed in order to make roads safer.

Handfield-Jones, citing an AA report released last November, says SA barely has adequate roads. “SA’s roads need R100bn spent on them to eliminate maintenance backlogs.”

SA has a total of 596000km of roads.

Handfield-Jones believes the level of funding is only a quarter of what is needed to maintain SA’s road network.

“The report shows that about 60% of national or provincial roads are in poor or very poor condition, compared to about 22% in 1998,” he says.

Handfield-Jones says this means that vast portions of the road network were in danger of becoming so badly damaged that they would no longer be able to be repaired, and the government would be forced to reconstruct them.