South Africa coach crash: At the spot where 26 Britons died, evidence grows it was not just the brakes that failed

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The Independent Online
THE SOUTH AFRICAN government announced yesterday it was calling in all of the country's tourist coaches for special safety checks in response to the Long Tom coach crash that killed 26 British tourists and a tour guide.

Amid criticism of poor traffic policing and enforcement and the condition of the country's roads, which last year accounted for more than 9,000 deaths, the country's transport minister, Dullah Omar, announced a safety summit to be held tomorrow between transport officials and coach and minibus operators and the important taxi driver lobby. It would be a prelude to full road worthy testing, the South African equivalent of the MoT, of all tourist coaches, said Mr Omar. "We need to put an end to this carnage immediately," he added.

The move is intended to prevent damage to the lucrative South African tourist econmy. Yesterday Thomas Cook announced that any customer who had booked a coach holiday could cancel with a full refund if they had any concerns.

But even as survivors were flown to hospital, the sixth serious bus accident in a week injured 21 South Africans travelling from Cape Town to a remote rural area in Eastern Cape when a bus failed to stop at an intersection and plunged down an embankment into a river.

The safety inquiry was announced as investigators recovered the coach's so-called "black box" from the accident scene. The journey recorder, similar to those used on airliners, is a computerised replacement of the traditional tachograph designed to record the coach speed.

Paddy Vella, financial director of Springbok Atlas, the company that supplied the vehicle, said: "This type is called a co-driver. It is an on-board computer that has replaced tachographs and will have recorded the speed of the coach at any time." Its recording will be crucial in judging the testimony of the driver, Titus Dube, to assess whether he obeyed the 60kph (37mph)speed limit.

Mr Dube had claimed the brakes had failed on the steep mountain road into Lydenburg, forcing him to career off the road. But Mr Dube, who is being treated for spinal fractures in the intensive care unit of Johannesburg's private Milpark Hospital, could face charges of culpable homicide and negligence if the "black box" contradicts his account.

Springbok Atlas has maintained that the coach had an exemplary safety record despite notching up 286,000 kilometres. The three-year-old Mercedes vehicle had two maintenance checks in the week before the accident, the most recent, including a brake service, just four days before it set off with the tourists.

Yesterday, on the hillside above Lydenburg, experts from Pretoria were still examining the scene of the crash to try to determine what happened to the Best of Africa tour. They photographed the skid marks that swerved back and forth across the steep, narrow and twisting road, and took note of the positions of the little yellow traffic cones that marked the final resting places of 27 dead.

Just above them, on the second last sharp bend of the pass, a yellow sign indicated to descending drivers that a gravel trap waited below to stop runaway vehicles with failing brakes. Yesterday, just as the forensic science experts were driving off, a pick-up truck towing two overloaded trailers of timber screamed past the accident site, smoke pouring from its brakes.

Two miles down the road, it swerved off the long straight leading to the edge of Lydenburg and into the deep, crunching bed of gravel. It shuddered to a halt within 20 yards and one of the traffic policeman descending from the crash site above stopped to issue a penalty ticket.

The incident is one of thousands that plague the roads. The government launched the Arrive Alive campaign two years ago to tackle the problem and although it has seen a modest reduction in road deaths it is still nowhere near to resolving the problem.

Didi Moyle, spokesman for the Tourism Ministry, said the accident was a "terrible blow" to South Africa's lucrative tourist industry. She said that although South African road deaths were high by British standards "we rate well compared to Kenya or Nigeria".

She said there had been an increase in bus crashes on South Africa's roads since 1994, but that this was accounted for mainly by minibus taxis, not tourist coaches.

Mpumalanga, the province that is home to the Kruger National Park, has some of the country's worst roads - single carriageways with thin overtaking strips. The weather is notoriously changeable, and the police force is corrupt and short of traffic officers.

Many drivers in the province do not have legitimate licences. Two years ago several local government officials were arrested for selling bus and truck licences to people from all over South Africa. After the scandal was revealed, the officials burnt down the Nelspruit records office, making it impossible for the authorities to trace people with fraudulent documents.

Most bus passengers who die or suffer injuries are South Africans riding on long-haul commuter lines, said Moira Winslow, executive director of the Drive Alive non-profit advocacy group. Many of those buses, and the minibus taxis that carry three-quarters of daily commuters are not properly serviced; roadworthiness tests are bypassed with a bribe. Many drivers obtain commercial licences the same way, she said. Fleets can overwork their drivers, who often sleep in the back of the bus at night because money is not provided for hotel rooms.

More than 9,000 people - drivers, passengers, and mainly pedestrians - died last year on South Africa's roads, according to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. About 140 people died per 100,000 vehicles, compared with 20 in the United States and 15 in the United Kingdom.

Other factors contribute to the slaughter. Relatively good roads encourage speeding. The end of apartheid restrictions has produced a new generation of inexperienced drivers. Enforcement is scarce. Traffic laws are ignored. Drunk-driving is frequent - 70 per cent of traffic victims at Johannesburg Hospital are legally drunk on admission.

Traffic police are from local forces, not the national South African Police Service, and there are few of them, about 8,000 all told, and half of what is necessary, Mrs Winslow said.