The merits of a demerit system to penalise habitual road traffic offenders are plain: if it worked to design, dangerous drivers who were likely to re-offend would be forced to stop driving. The trouble is the success of such a system depends on a number of inappropriate assumptions about law enforcement and South African road users.

In the first instance, the assumption that the demerit system would be administered fairly is proven nonsense. Corruption is so pervasive that it would be closer to the truth to assume that the more honest breed of traffic offender is likely to carry the bulk of penalties, while habitual offenders will continue to get away with their offences by paying bribes.

There is nothing in the demerit system that suggests it might tackle corruption, perhaps the single greatest obstacle in effective traffic law enforcement. If anything, it opens up a new dimension in the market for forged driving licences and provides a further disincentive for drivers without licences to sit for the real thing. An extreme outcome may well be a Darwinian paradox, in that the efficient removal of honest drivers from the roads over an accumulation of minor offences will result in a disproportionately large population of criminally minded road hogs.

The more dangerous assumption is that driver demerits would improve road safety. While the system may be a good idea generally speaking, it is nevertheless a penal system, not a policing system. An overloaded minibus taxi barreling down the emergency lane may earn its driver demerit points, but only if he is caught.

Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that revenue-driven policing would be abandoned in favour of road-safety orientated work, the job traffic law enforcers must do in the first place.

Granted, SA’s road users are an undisciplined, inconsiderate and ignorant lot, who may well deserve everything that is coming to them from law enforcement, but whatever the merits of the demerit system, it is unlikely to improve road safety until traffic policing becomes effective, and that has to start at the top.

The introduction of the system may make Transport Minister Jeff Radebe look good because he is being seen to be doing something, but he won’t be doing any good until his traffic officers are doing what taxpayers expect them to do. Drunk drivers and speedsters must be punished, but road users should hold the minister responsible also for the control of pedestrians, the rapidly deteriorating road-surface conditions and poor road markings and signs.

Until these issues are tackled effectively, Radebe’s pursuit of the demerit system makes him as guilty of dereliction of duty as are traffic officers manning a speed trap in the bushes while a herd of cattle are grazing within their sight on the verge of the freeway.

It is unlikely though that the minister would respond to such admonition. It has become axiomatic of our leadership to shift the blame and burden for apparently insurmountable problems to the law-abiding public. Typically, they respond to their failure to enforce existing laws by creating more laws of greater complexity that are even harder to enforce.

What the minister needs to do is to stop alienating law-abiding road users and co-opt them into an alliance of responsible people. A good place to start would be by stamping out corruption and abandoning the money-grubbing motivation of the traffic authorities that report to him.

The cultural change that is necessary to make reckless road behaviour unacceptable and to make our roads safer must be effected by our leaders. Until the minister demonstrates that, his demerit system will have no merit.