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In defence of Joburg minibus taxi drivers

- Wits University

It's Global Road Safety Week from 17-23 May. Research by a bioethicist challenges assumptions about road safety, minibus taxi crashes, and who's responsible.

In 2010 a minibus taxi driver lost his arm when a private vehicle hit him. The college-educated taxi driver, for whom driving was just a stop-gap job, was left disabled and unemployed.

His occupational therapist, Dr Lee Randall, decided to take a closer look at minibus taxi crashes in Johannesburg and who is really responsible.

Doctoral research by Wits bioethicist Dr Lee Randall challenges assumptions about minibus taxi crashes and who is responsible.

“Having worked as an occupational therapist in South Africa, the USA and New Zealand for over 30 years – with numerous road crash survivors amongst my caseload – I  embarked on PhD research through the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at Wits, supervised by Professors Ames Dhai and Kevin Behrens. This focused on the bioethics of road safety in the Johannesburg minibus taxi industry,” says Randall, now a postdoctoral research consultant in PRICELESS-SA in the Wits School of Public Health.

In designing her doctoral study, Randall first consulted Eugene Herbert of MasterDrive, a driving risk management and driver training expert. Randall thought that the key problem may be that taxi drivers lack advanced driving skills.

“But Eugene told me there is no skills deficit and that I should look at the drivers’ work conditions for answers. This flipped the general public view that taxi drivers have reckless natures and this is what causes crashes,” she says.

‘Contra-constitutional’ labour

Randall’s thesis, titled “Coffins on wheels”: A bioethical study of work conditions, driver behavior and road safety in the Johannesburg minibus taxi industry, explored taxi drivers’ work conditions and the extent to which they are responsible for crashes.

Dr Lee Randall, is a bioethicist and postdoctoral research consultant at PRICELESS SA

“The public tend to vilify minibus taxi drivers and ascribe a high degree of moral responsibility to them, but this intuitive reasoning seems to disregard their work conditions and how these affect their driving behavior,” she says. “The taxi drivers I interviewed admitted to bad driving behavior, but linked this strongly to their work conditions."

Minibus taxi drivers work at least six days a week, 15 hours a day, with no UIF or overtime and they have to pay for their own petrol, professional driving permits, licenses, taxi cleaning, and minor repairs.

"From these stressful realities they generate very low incomes, like wages of as little as R200 per week plus any ‘leftover’ fares on good days," says Randall.

Furthermore, statutory requirements like shifts being restricted to 9-hours and paid leave being provided are frequently ignored by taxi owners.

Fares – such as R15 for a Soweto-Johannesburg trip – are “sub-economic”, especially considering that empty taxis travelling back to collect another load of passengers incur “dead miles” with no fare income, says Randall.

An indicator species

Under these conditions, taxi drivers’ survival strategies include speeding and overloading, says Randall. The operating principles of the Johannesburg minibus taxi industry are ‘contra-constitutional’ – they violate taxi drivers’ labour rights and the human rights of drivers, passengers and other road users.

“Taxi drivers are actually ‘indicator species’ – their behaviour points to significant problems in our wider mobility system”, says Randall.

Doctoral research by Wits bioethicist Dr Lee Randall challenges assumptions about minibus taxi crashes and suggests these taxi drivers are an indicator species whose their behaviour points to significant problems in our wider mobility system .

‘Crashogenic’ road traffic system

To provide context for her research, Randall analysed the South African road safety situation against international best practice. She also compared South Africa to three groups of reference countries: the BRICS, our African neighbours (and two other African countries with similar paratransit), and several aspirational countries with very low road traffic injuries and deaths (RTID). 

“This analysis led me to develop the term ‘crashogenic’ to describe our road traffic system,” says Randall.

Critical contribution made by the minibus taxi industry

Minibus taxis are an indispensable mode of transport in Johannesburg. They offer flexible and relatively affordable services to the vast majority (65-75%) of commuters and helps reduce the social divide caused by apartheid geography.

The industry is also a key source of economic empowerment and employment, especially in historically disadvantaged areas.

However, as with paratransit (informal public transport) systems elsewhere, a lack of proper regulation in relation to driving standards and vehicle safety creates unacceptable crash risks. 

Indeed, minibus taxi crashes have contributed to Johannesburg’s road deaths being more than triple the international city average.

Vision Zero

The Vision Zero philosophy originated in Sweden in the 1990s and is premised on the view that no loss of life is ethically acceptable – particularly when we have the technology and know-how to prevent road crashes.

Operationally, Vision Zero manifests in the Safe System approach to road safety, which assigns responsibilities both to road users and to system designers.

Vision Zero recognises that human beings are frail and that they make mistakes, and it is the job of the road traffic system to protect users from the consequences of these two realities.

It is clear from her research, says Randall, that taxi drivers should not be singled out and disproportionately blamed for road crashes.

Given our ‘crashogenic’ road system, the system designers (government as policymaker, road designer and law enforcer, as well as vehicle manufacturers) have a high degree of accountability. 

For instance, there was a noticeable uptick in road deaths around the world when vehicles started featuring infotainment centres and smartphones became widely used, which “helped spawn the misconception that it’s fine to do other things while driving.” 

In relation to minibus taxi crashes, responsibilities clearly lie not only with the drivers but also with taxi owners and associations, taxi passengers, and even other road users.

Streets for Life #Love30

Despite being a signatory to the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020, South Africa has generally high crash rates by world standards. In many respects, the country fails to apply road safety best practice even though this is described in its own National Road Safety Strategy 2016-2030.  

Designed to highlight the sort of ‘contra-constitutional’ and ‘crashogenic’ realities which we see on South African roads, the 6th UN Global Road Safety Week takes place from 17-23 May 2021. It has a special focus on speed as a cause of death and injury and calls on policymakers to create low speed streets with speed  limits of 30 km/h (20 mph) where people walk, live and play. 

Low speed streets save lives and are the heart of any community. Where people and traffic mix, 30 km/h (20 mph) speed limits ensure 'streets for life' – safe, healthy, green and liveable.

Although high speeds – or speeds too high for the circumstances – may be condoned or even admired by the public, they have caused some of the worst road trauma cases Randall has seen.

“When vehicles carrying multiple passengers – like minibus taxis – are involved, extreme numbers of fatalities can result. Road deaths and injuries are usually sudden and life-changing for survivors and families and those who help at crash scenes – whether professionals or lay people – are often traumatized by what they see,” says Randall.

Ethically, whether we focus is on mass transport modes like minibuses, heavy trucks or buses, light motor vehicle drivers or other road users like pedestrians and cyclists, “we need to stop the silence about traffic violence”.