What South Africa learned from Australia to stop thousands of car crashes

2,700 South Africans are walking around alive today because of a regional government's effort to tackle road deaths with lessons learnt from an Australian predecessor.

'The numbers are staggering,' Siphesihle Dube, spokesperson for Western Cape's Transport Minister, told Apolitical. 'It's very much a plague of the developing world and, nationally, it's estimated at more than 17,000 deaths per year. And we know they're avoidable. It's not like deaths by natural causes.'

There's a culture of lawlessness

The number of cars on the road in South Africa is growing exponentially each year, bringing with them this shocking toll in human lives. A lack of raised pavements, poor enforcement, untrustworthy licensing and soft sentencing have all been named as contributing factors, but the heart of the problem is to do with attitude, something that Dube calls 'a culture of lawlessness, right across the board'.

So with the program that began in 2009 the Western Cape is ultimately trying not just to regulate its citizens, but to change them. In that, this effort is akin to the way governments across the developed world have won the public argument about smoking, gradually tightening the screw towards eradication, and that they have so far failed to win on obesity.

The rate of road deaths in Australia has dropped by around 85% since 1970, and fallen steeply across the developed world. In the past twenty years, that has been driven on by an idea from Sweden. Called Vision Zero, it essentially mandates that there can be no compromises on getting the number of road deaths down to nothing; if speed limits have to be lowered, for example, then they are lowered, and drivers' habits are completely secondary.

This idea now underpins the work in Australia, the UK and many other countries. It was adopted in New York, and last year fewer people were killed in traffic than in any year since before the First World War.

But Australia has been a pioneer since the 1970s, especially the state of Victoria. After more than a thousand people were killed in a single year, it became the world's first jurisdiction to introduce mandatory seatbelts (1971) and random breath testing (1976).

Since then, the state has run regular hard-hitting road safety campaigns while introducing ever tighter regulation, including mobile speed cameras (1985), compulsory bicycle helmets (1990), reduced urban speed limits (2001), random drug tests (2006) and mandatory electronic stability control for new cars (2011).

And this year Australia introduced breathalyser locks for people who've been convicted of drink driving: to start their cars, they need to breathe into the machine and come up sober.

'There's a confluence of all sorts of things,' says Siphesihle Dube. 'Awareness campaigns, enforcement that's jacked up, consequences if you're caught - when all these things come together, it triggers this change in attitudes. It becomes this big taboo so people just don't do it.

When all these things come together, it becomes this big taboo

'The issues we have here and the circumstances in terms of things like population are very similar to what Australia had thirty years ago, so we've modelled a lot of our interventions on what Australia was able to do to.'

The Western Cape has done everything from publishing videos of accidents on its website, making car seats mandatory for infants, building verges to separate pedestrians from traffic, naming and shaming drunk drivers in a local newspaper, and running brutal ad campaigns such as the recent prize-winning First Kiss ad. They've also taken a tip from behavioural economics to give prizes of $2,000 to safe drivers.

The result has been a plunge in the number of annual deaths, saving the lives of around 2,700 people. Nonetheless, although the Western Cape has adopted many specific interventions, it is a very long way from systematically adopting a Vision Zero-style approach.

'You can see that if you look at our speed limit,' says Hector Eliott, Strategic Co-Ordinator in the Transport Department and one of the team who went to Victoria and other Australian states to learn from their work. 'In the UK, which has perhaps the lowest death rate in the world, there are about 260 local authorities with urban speed limits of 32kph. Our default urban speed limit is 60kph. We're working from a position that's way in excess of norms for countries with good road safety.

You ask: at what speed will a human definitely be killed?

'And the prevailing policy in this country is that our speed limits are appropriate and should be maintained. A safe system starts from: at what speed will a human definitely be killed? And you design your environment from that scientific benchmark. In a traditional system like ours, you say: what speed do drivers traditionally drive at?'

Progress on mortality rate has plateaued and, in the past couple of years, the number of deaths has again crept up slightly. 'Fundamentally, the problem is institutions that are set in their ways, and changing those mindsets,' says Hector Eliott. 'But the key lesson from Australia was to switch away from intuitive decisions made on historical priorities and to consistently use the evidence as your starting point.'

Siphesihle Dube gives the example of soft sentencing, and says judges continue to be lenient on traffic crimes, even when drivers have killed someone. As he puts it, 'What we've done so far has worked only because there's been that will to dedicate a hell of a lot of resources to it, and we need to do more of that to stigmatise that behaviour to such a level that people understand that this is against what society stands for.'