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Death by road in SA fuelled by violence

A MAN lies bleeding and prostrate on the road, dead. The whites of his lifeless eyes stare into the oncoming headlights. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles send bursts of colour through the air. Glass and pieces of car litter the asphalt.

This is not a bloody episode in JG Ballard, but a sight anyone can expect to see on their Christmas-tide travels in South Africa. In 55-million- strong Britain, where you can go a lifetime without seeing a corpse and there are 22 million small passenger vehicles, some 3,400 people die on the roads every year. In South Africa, which has about 6 million cars and minibuses for a population of about 42 million, 507 people died in just the first 23 days of this month.

Racial tension is, as with almost everything, cited among the causes of South Africa's terrible road statistics. But so is a lack of road-safety education, bad vehicle maintenance and, by Third World standards, tip- top statistics-gathering.

Every day in December, the media tot up the tally, as part of Arrive Alive - a road safety campaign which steps up its visibility at this time of year. "I have a feeling that things are improving," said a spokeswoman for the campaign, which has a freephone number and gives out information on road conditions to anyone who cares to call. "In December last year, 718 people died. We are up to 507 deaths this year, but the weather is far worse, and what is encouraging is that people do call before their trips to find out about the roads," she said.

There is no missing the campaign and in one of Johannesburg's northern suburbs two scrunched-up VW Golfs have even been placed nose to nose on a petrol station forecourt. "He arrived dead on time," reads the slogan pasted to one of the cars. Television, radio and newspapers are full of Arrive Alive's "six road safety commandments": don't speed, don't drink and drive, don't overload, use seatbelts, ensure driver and vehicle fitness and promote pedestrian safety.

Yet in a country where many policemen can be bought with a 50 rand (pounds 5) note, it is hard to imagine the commandments sticking in the month when thousands of people return to their rural villages, laden with gifts which are piled high on to buses and minibus taxis.

White, black, rich and poor are all tied up in the deadly trend, but for different reasons, claims Graeme Simpson, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.

"I have been around the world and, thinking of places like Bosnia and Cambodia, it seems to me that the way in which people drive is extremely revealing of the public psyche. We assume we are a post-conflict society, but we should instead look at the ways in which our conflicts are changing," he said.

The South African statistical authorities, despite numerous calls, refused to release the figure for road deaths in December 10 years ago - when apartheid reigned, car ownership was lower and the majority black population was legally constrained from travelling freely. Perhaps there were fewer road deaths then, but the comparison is naturally unfair.

"We are very aggressive drivers who do not give way, overtake on blind rises and do not have confidence in the institutions which exist to regulate us," said Mr Simpson. "Our high rates of criminal violence, road traffic deaths, domestic violence, rape and child abuse are all oblique expressions of the brutality that is embedded in this society."

To support his view that South Africans are imbued with lawlessness, Mr Simpson cited recent controversy around a government attempt to limit to 100kmh (just over 60mph) the speed of buses and of the 20,000-odd minibus taxis who ferry South Africa's carless majority. The move followed September's Lydenburg coach crash, in which 37 people, most of them British tourists, plunged into a ravine near Kruger Park.

The minibus taxi industry responded with the threat of a go-slow at the start of the holiday season this month, arguing that 120kmh was not excessive and that Arrive Alive's slogan, "speed kills", was rubbish. In the end, the taxi industry yielded to the new limit.

Mr Simpson said: "We have come from being a society in which rules were crazy and so were seen as being made to be broken, to one in which there are rules but we do not respect the people who enforce them."