How To Stay Safe On South Africa’s Roads

From hijackings to potholes and more, South Africa’s roads are full of danger. Clinton Matos looks at a few ways to stay safe.

Motor accidents and crime are commonplace the world over, but South African drivers face an unusually high number of risks, given our population and the state of our economy. According to statistics released by SAPS in March this year, hijacking on the road is the fastest-growing type of crime in the country.

In the period April to December 2016, the number of reported hijackings rose by 14.9% year-on-year, bringing the total reported incidents (12 743) close to the number of home burglaries (16 844) and break-ins at non-residential premises (15 925).

Many drivers fear hijackings will involve violence, regardless of whether or not they hand over their car or valuables.

Ron Knott-Craig is the director of operations at Tracker South Africa, a company that makes in-car tracking devices. He says he has seen a marked decrease in hijackings taking place in driveways, but this has been countered by an increase in those taking place in the street or at intersections.

“More than half of the hijackings reported by our clients take place between 17h00 and midnight, and we have seen a rise in victims being taken hostage,” Knott-Craig says.

The motivation for the increase isn’t easy to pin down. “Criminals target vehicles for a number of reasons,” Knott-Craig continues, “whether to sell them across our borders, locally for parts, or for use in other criminal activity.”

Common advice for avoiding hijackings ranges from sharing your location with friends and family, to watching if cars are following you, and not stopping if you don’t need to. “It’s all about awareness,” says Peter Palm, a road test engineer at CAR Magazine South Africa.

“Be aware of your surroundings; try to anticipate what people will do, because driving in South Africa… is not the greatest.

“Be on the lookout for people driving oddly and try to avoid them.”

If the unthinkable happens, and you are hijacked, Palm says, it’s advised that you keep calm and co-operate. Avoid direct eye-contact with the criminals, but try to memorise details for the authorities.

Not just crime

Palm says the same advice rings true for avoiding other dangers on the road, such as poor weather conditions and distracted drivers.

Aside from ensuring that your car is roadworthy, by checking the status of tyres, wipers, and indicators on a regular basis, Palm stresses the importance of not skidding.

This usually happens when a driver attempts to avoid a pothole, person or animal, especially at night. In an effort to protect their car or the obstacle on the road, drivers will usually try to swerve out of the way and apply brakes at the same time, causing the car to skid uncontrollably and possibly flip.

The solution to this is always to brake in a straight line and never to combine this with a dangerous swerve. Palm suggests this is not a driving practice that comes instinctively. Advanced driving courses are a great place for learning how to control your car under braking, and there are many hijack-prevention courses too. Not only will they improve your road smarts; they may reduce your insurance premiums too.

The ‘flat tyre’ trick

While it’s known by many names and pulled off in a variety of ways, there’s an old trick used by South Africa’s criminals to get closer to your car, and eventually to rob you. The scheme usually plays out at a red light, with a car that cannot drive forward due to other cars blocking its escape. An initially friendly-looking man or woman will point towards your tyre and then hold up a hand gesture, indicating that a tyre  is low on air, or otherwise has a puncture. This gesture involves holding the thumb and index finger close together. Once they have the attention of the driver, they will walk to the window, produce a weapon and attempt a robbery or hijacking.

Shallow depth of field image taken of yellow law enforcement line with police car and lights in the background.

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