When the rubber leaves the road

May 21, 2013

 

As much as minibus taxis are a unique part of our local culture, they are also responsible for a high percentage of deaths and accidents on our roads. Taking into account the increased risk associated with driving, or driving in a taxi, specialised insurance for this largely unregulated industry is rapidly becoming imperative.

 

An industry in need of change

 

Two years ago, in what could only be described as South Africa’s worst-ever taxi disaster, 30 people, including 10 children, died when an overloaded minibus taxi collided with a truck near Harrismith in the Free State.

Driving home for the Christmas holidays, the driver of the minibus taxi lost control on a tight bend and slammed straight into an oncoming truck. The overloaded taxi was licensed to carry 23 people, but had 35 passengers on board and was also towing a trailer filled with heavy luggage.

It is not uncommon for South Africans to regularly hear about horrific minibus taxi accidents. But public anger against taxis has reached boiling point following recent high profile accidents, which include the killing of an 11-year-old school girl from Diepsloot as well as the death of acclaimed South African cyclist Burry Stander – both accidents involving minibus taxis.

Since 1979, when the first National Association of black taxi drivers was established, minibus taxi transport has turned into a multi-billion rand industry. Today, about 150 000 minibus taxis transport more than 65 per cent of South African commuters on a daily basis. But due to a largely unregulated market and the fierce competition for passengers and lucrative routes, taxi operators often engage in ‘taxi wars’ – a term that refers to a turf war between operators banding together to form groups that exhibit mafia-like tactics and engage in competitive price fixing.

Like many African countries, South Africa has a chaotic informal public transport system, which forces people who cannot afford a vehicle to rely on privately operated minibus taxi services for daily transport.

Notorious for their reckless driving and poorly maintained vehicles, minibus taxi drivers also have a bad reputation for overloading their vehicles in order to maximise profits.

 

Crash and burn

 

Of course, overloading a poorly maintained vehicle coupled with a disregard for the rules of the road and the safety of passengers is a contributing factor to the high accident and related death toll in South Africa, which in turn makes our roads rank among the most dangerous in the world.

Western Cape Provincial Minister of Transport and Public Works, Robin Carlisle, says that the lack of employment relationship between taxi owners, drivers and gaatjies (sliding door operators) is a serious challenge within the taxi industry, “and a major cause of bad, dangerous and negligent driving.”

“There is no employment contract, and drivers are paid a fixed daily amount. Anything in excess of that amount, they’re allowed to keep. Because of this, drivers drive like lunatics. The faster he goes, the more traffic lights he skips and the more he overloads, the more money he earns. And that is really all the taxi owner is interested in. This institutionalises a highly dangerous situation on the road” Carlisle says.

According to a report by the Automobile Association of South Africa (AASA), a study it conducted recorded an annual total of 70 000 minibus taxi accidents, indicating that taxis in the country account for double the rate of accidents compared to other passenger vehicles. The report indicates that minibus taxis account for 4.5 per cent of the total vehicle population, but contribute to 8.6 per cent of all crashes.

While accident data and sufficient details remain sketchy and little evidence exists to support a clear cause for the high number of fatalities in minibus taxis, certain contributing factors paint a clear picture of the influence minibus taxis’ have on road accident figures.

According to a report by the Durban University of Technology’s department of civil engineering, the most common contributing factors leading to minibus accidents include overloading, faulty brakes, burst tyres, smooth tyres and faulty lights.

 

Taming the taxi

 

Taxi insurance has improved considerably over the last decade. Today, more than 80 000 taxis on South African roads are insured on a comprehensive basis with a further 20 000 taxis covered through other insurance products, such as passenger liability. However, another 80 000 taxis in South Africa remain uninsured.

Clarendon Transport Underwriting Managers (CTU) has been actively involved with insuring taxis for the past 22 years, and the company insures 60 000 policyholders – an estimated 90 per cent of the insured taxi market.

CTU’s Zane Hassim says that it wants to rectify the perception that taxis are a higher risk due to driver skills by putting things into perspective. “A taxi is on the road and exposed to risk for up to 16 hours a day, while a privately owned vehicle might spend more or less an hour or two on the road.

The risks that taxis are exposed to are much the same as a privately owned vehicle and include accidents, hijacking, theft and windscreen damage. However, this is on a greater scale as taxis are also exposed to malicious damage and in certain areas, taxi wars.”

Dave Gould, managing director of Vulindlela Underwriting Managers, reiterates this by saying that taxis are on the road for between eight and 14 hours per day, so the chances of an accident are much greater. “There is also a fairly high incidence of overloading and speeding, which is a lethal combination.”

Hassim says that in the case of accidents, especially those involving taxis travelling long distances, drivers experience fatigue and are prone to accidents resulting in a vehicle write-off. “Hijacking and theft volumes are also increased in the taxi industry due to the demand for spares. More passengers are exposed to risk due to the number of people the vehicle can carry.”

According to Hassim, CTU pays out approximately R700 million in claims annually and receives about 3 000 claims per month for incidents including accidents, hijacking, theft and windscreen damage. He says that the latter accounts for the most frequent claim, followed closely by motor accidents. Vulindlela has received 734 taxi accident claims in the last three months alone.

Gould says that according to claim statistics, the province of Gauteng has improved considerably in terms of taxi claims, but that the number of taxi claims in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal has increased.

Minister Carlisle disagrees. “I find that hard to believe. We have enforced strict regulation in the Western Cape, which has, resulted in a 30 per cent drop in the death rate attributed to minibus taxis. I would be intensely interested to see how it is possible that such a significant drop in the fatal crash rate would not have reflected on taxi claims.”

Carlisle also says that unlike the other eight provinces, the Western Cape only issues enough taxi operating licences to meet the required needs. “When I started out, there were 7 000 licences issued and there are still only 7 000 licences,” he says.

“Through a combination of fraudulent licence issuing and route invasions, the supply has risen significantly above demand, resulting in continued taxi violence. This overtrading has also led to great anxiety surrounding competing modalities, notably the Industry Rapid Transport (IRT). We have largely eradicated both [in the Western Cape] which has led to a greater consistency, compliance and increased prosperity for most operators.”

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