New penalties for errant drivers

Harmony Agere  —
The tragedy of the Nyamatikiti bus inferno which recently left 31 people dead along the Harare-Beitbridge road was still engulfing the nation when the Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe (TSCZ) announced a new set of traffic rules to curb road carnage.

How the deceased must have screamed and wailed to their last voices for help in the midst of the unforgiving blaze may forever stay as a tormenting imagination to their loved ones.

And the most excruciating thought is that all those lives may not have been lost had it not been for an individual error as reports later emerged that the driver whose truck sideswiped the charred bus may have been negligent.

However, while TSCZ’s announcement may not have been enough to console the bereaved, it definitely comes as a game changer in a country where 93 percent of road accidents are caused by human error.

Its most important solution is the proposed introduction of the point system for all drivers.

Under this system, serial traffic offenders could lose their drivers’ licences while the fines could also be hiked heavily.

“According to the Road Traffic Act (Chapter 13:11), the Minister is allowed to craft a Statutory Instrument which puts into effect a penalty points system,” TSCZ spokesperson, Mr Ernest Muchena, said recently.

“For example, the system may start with each driver at 15 points, and when they transgress the law, say drinking under the influence, three points will be deducted. If they continue transgressing, more points will be deducted and if one gets to zero, their licence is taken away.”

According to research, a penalty point system or demerit point system as it is known in some countries, is when a driver’s licencing authority, police force, or other appointed organisation issues cumulative demerits or points to drivers on conviction for road traffic offences. Points are applied after driving offences are committed, and cancelled after a defined time, typically a few years, afterwards, or after other conditions are met. If the total exceeds a specified limit the offender may be disqualified from driving for a time, or the driving licence may be revoked.

In England and Wales, penalty points are given by courts for certain traffic offences.

The minimum is two points for some lesser offences and the maximum is 11 points for the most serious offences.

Therefore, if one gets 12 points on their licence within three years, the driver may be liable for disqualification. This is, however, not automatic, but must be decided by a court of law.

If a similar system is introduced in Zimbabwe, many drivers, both private and in the public transport service, may find themselves losing their drivers’ licences for certain periods and ultimately their jobs for those who drive for a living.

According to the Passengers Association of Zimbabwe (PAZ), which has been lobbying for the introduction of the system, the demerit point system has been overdue in the country considering that most accidents are a result of negligence or indiscipline.

“We have been advocating the point system and now that it appears to be coming we are very pleased because it will make our roads safe,” said PAZ president, Mr Tafadzwa Goliati.

“It will instill discipline in drivers because they will exercise caution in order for them not to lose points and ultimately their drivers’ licences. But it should also be made clear that it won’t work if the police are corrupt because they may take advantage of it. For example, there are some people who are driving public vehicles without licences and they are getting away with it through bribes.”

The demerit point system has been implemented with varying degrees of success in various countries.

According to the European Point Handbook, countries implementing the demerit point system generally monitor the number of casualties or number of offences in order to assess the effectiveness of the system.

“Most of these studies report a positive effect of demerit point systems but only for a limited time period,” reads the handbook.

“A meta-analysis showed that the strong initial positive impact, 15 to 20 percent reduction in crashes, fatalities and injuries seem to wear off in under 18 months and that this limited effectiveness is related to the absence of complementary enforcement.”

According to the handbook, the initial fear instilled by the possibility that drivers could lose their licence after just a few offences seems to gradually fade away when the demerit point system disappears from the news, when friends and family stop talking about it, and when police visibility is low.

Some examples of initial demerit point system effects on crash reductions in the first year after introduction were reported to be 1,4 percent in Ireland (2002); 3,2 percent in Italy (2003); 14 percent in Denmark (2005) and 7,6 percent in Spain (2006). In France, in the year after introduction (1992), the number of fatalities was 7 percent less than in the previous year.

In general, the decrease in the number of crashes is substantial in the first months after the introduction, but following this the number of crashes increases back to levels prior to introduction.

This seems to suggest that the success of a demerit point system is pinned on effective implementation and enforcement.

It may take time before the system is introduced in Zimbabwe considering the procedures such as legislation, the tracking system and other requirements which need to be put in place.There may be hurdles such as the costs involved is setting a vast database of this kind.

Experts say the system may prove to be a success in terms of reducing fatalities given the reality that some of the country’s traffic laws are not prohibitive enough and offenders have been getting minor punishments.

It will also be costly on the part of the drivers to regain their driving status once it is lost.

Last year, the Chairman of the Parliament Portfolio Committee on Transport and Infrastructure Development, Honourable Dexter Nduna proposed that drivers’ licences for all drivers should expire after a certain period to allow for periodic re-testing.

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