By Patrick O’Leary
The South African truck driver fraternity is under siege in terms of on-road risks that have escalated dramatically over the past years and now pose life-threatening risks to truck drivers all over the country. “In the old days, we could meet on the side of the road, have a braai and enjoy our friendships and camaraderie before heading off again. We can no longer do that. We’ll get mugged or hijacked. Even the truck stops are not safe for us anymore,” is what one driver told me. Over the past few weeks I have been talking to a number of truck drivers on this issue and all are unanimous in their opinions that being a truck driver in South Africa is now a high risk occupation. Another driver I spoke to who has been driving for close to 30 years says he can’t wait to retire. “It’s not the same as the old days,” he said. I asked what had changed. He was quick to reply. “The risks. There are too many risks on the road. It’s not safe for us anymore,” he answered. Interesting is that not one of the drivers I spoke to mentioned pay as an issue. It was all about the increased risks on the road. So what are these risks? Oh, and by the way, I’m not making this up. I have pictures and names of all the drivers I spoke to, all of whom asked to remain anonymous.
Crime has become a major issue. FleetWatch belongs to a number of closed WhatsApp groups where daily incidents of crashes, traffic issues and crime – among others –are shared. Just recently, it was reported that there were 13 attempted hijackings during the course of one evening on the N3 between Johannesburg and Durban – four of which were successful. All were orchestrated at the same time so as to ensure response teams would not be able to attend to all of them indicating that this operation was clearly being conducted by a well organised syndicate. The number of hijacking has once again shot up and is increasing at a rapid rate – and drivers are running scared. According to Zak Calisto, Global CEO of Cartrack, vehicle theft and hijacking is now the worst he has known in the past 10 years. Another crime trend that has emerged is tyre theft. I have received numerous reports of tyres being stolen from parked trucks – not on the side of the road but at so called ‘safe and secure’ truck stops. One owner I spoke to said he can’t understand why his driver didn’t hear the thieves and get out the cab to stop them. I asked him if he would get out the cab and confront the thieves given that at best, he could be beaten up and at worst, killed. No. If I was a driver, there is absolutely no chance I would risk getting out of my cab to confront the tyre thieves, and I advise all drivers not to do so – which brings me to the next risk facing drivers, namely, stopping to rest at lay byes.
Ask any driver to name the worst and most risky town on the N1 between Johannesburg and Cape Town and the answer will be, Beaufort West. Anyone who knows this route will be familiar with the long stretches of straight, boring road coming in from both sides of the town. Driver fatigue is a big issue on these stretches and when the drivers get near to Beaufort West, they welcome the lay-byes as a place to stop and rest. Well, they can no longer do so due to the numerous attacks by marauding gangs of youngsters who come in numbers to attack and rob the drivers. They attack with viciousness throwing rocks through the windows and beating up the drivers – badly. One guy was attacked by a gang of about 14 thugs. He landed up in hospital – and all for stopping at a recognised lay-bye to rest. It is no longer safe for truck drivers to stop anywhere on the side of the road – and I mean anywhere in South Africa. It is good practice for drivers to stop every two hours to rest, stretch their legs and check their rigs. The drivers I spoke to feel they can no longer do so. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why crashes from driver fatigue have become so common nowadays. Stop to rest and you could die at the hands of criminals. Carry on driving and you could die from falling asleep behind the wheel and crashing. It’s crazy.
Which brings us to another form of violence facing truck drivers around the country. I refer to the almost daily protest actions being staged by disgruntled residents of various towns protesting mainly about the lack of service delivery. Many of these protests turn violent and all too often, innocent trucks drivers get caught up in them. There’ve been a number of drivers seriously injured when the protestors throw rocks through their windscreens to get the truck to stop so that they can burn it. I have lost count of the number of trucks that have been burnt to ashes in such protests. The lives of the drivers of these trucks are of little concern to the protestors.
Another risk seen by many professional drivers as a threat to their lives is the large number of unroadworthy trucks in the hands of untrained drivers operating on our roads. An example of reckless and negligent driving which led to a head-on crash between two trucks recently occurred on the old Kriel/Bethal road. Click on this link to have a look at the video from the in-cab camera here. https://youtu.be/ip-ZxkEG4gI. Note in the top left window how the on-coming truck has misjudged his overtaking distance and forced the truck he was overtaking off the road. He is also posing a real threat to the on-coming driver in which the camera is positioned. Then note in the bottom right frame how the car behind the truck decides to veer off the road due to the speed of the truck coming up behind him. And then, the inevitable happens. Bang! What this displays is what many of the old hands fear, namely, reckless driving. Driver training used to be an imbedded culture in the trucking industry. It is no longer so – and we are seeing the consequences of this on a daily basis. As for unroadworthy trucks, the FleetWatch Brake & Tyre Watch project has sufficient evidence to give credence to the drivers’ fears. Out of 738 trucks tested for roadworthiness, 492 have failed giving a 68% failure rate. Some of the trucks operating on our roads are in shocking condition. All this – plus more – adds up to making truck driving one of the riskiest professions in South Africa. And we’re talking about attracting women into the profession. You’ve got to be joking.
Footnote: I have many photographs of actual incidences to highlight each of the risks mentioned. They are real and Fleetwatch will continue to work on ways to reduce the risks for our valued truck drivers to help them do their jobs in safety and get home to their families in one piece.