Drunk Driving: A Focus on South Africa


On January 25th, Comparative Health Systems Program held a lecture by Dr. Mark Daku about his recent research on drinking and driving in South Africa. Daku, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University, presented his findings on the research he conducted in South Africa and discussed the wider importance of road safety.

Road safety is a critical aspect of world health despite being somewhat marginalised in contemporary news. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among those aged 12-29. In particular, the Global South has an excess of traffic fatalities with almost 85 percent of traffic-related injuries and deaths occurring in the developing world.

“[South Africa has] laws against drinking and driving, and everything looks pretty good on paper, yet it is still a huge problem,” Daku said. “Clearly then, the policies aren’t effective – we can’t simply look to public policy in terms of figuring out how to solve this problem.”

The severity of traffic fatalities in South Africa makes it an interesting case study for road safety. In 2015, the country saw 13,802 traffic-related deaths – a very high number when compared to France, which had only 3,268 traffic-related deaths despite a similar population.

Daku told the audience that this high number of traffic fatalities sparked his interest in South African road safety. Despite the South African government implementing laws and regulations aimed at preventing drunk driving, the prevalence of traffic fatalities led him to question the underlying reasons for this continuing trend.

Daku went on to explain the unique methodology in which he interviewed forty South Africans across many neighbourhoods before they left the bar. His hope was to discover what their justifications were for drinking and driving.

One of the surprising results of his research was the lack of police enforcement. Daku explained that many of the respondents – although aware of the strict traffic laws and regulations – did not consider the consequences of getting caught by the South African police force. “Everyone I talked to brought up the issue of corruption and the role it produced… everyone I talked to had a story with bribing the police in order to get out of a ticket,” he said. Daku blamed the widespread corruption for the persistence of drunk driving. “The role of the police is huge here. If you have a police force that is systematically corrupt when it comes to traffic enforcing, it doesn’t matter what these laws are,” he added.

The researcher highlighted the importance of context in explaining the prevalence of drunk driving within South Africa. The safety issues regarding public transit and walking in South Africa were additional reasons for continued drinking and driving despite the costs involved.  “[South Africans] recognised it was dangerous; however, they were able to rationalise in their mind that it was the least dangerous thing they could do…drinking and driving was safer for them than walking…it was safer than doing a lot of other things,” said Daku.

Daku then moved on to discuss possible solutions to the drunk-driving problem in South Africa. He told the audience that Uber has emerged as an unusual solution to drunk driving. “Uber came up again and again as a positive influence – people were mentioning how great it was for getting drunk people off the roads,” he explained.

Nonetheless, Daku stressed that these solutions were only effective insofar as they impact certain groups within society. “Uber was getting people off the road who are drinking, but it is only affecting a certain subset of the population…[Uber drivers] recognized that a lot of their clients were drinking and were drunk, but most of them were white” he said. “Some people would not be using Uber…especially Black South Africans as they were not interested in giving their credit card to a faceless foreign corporations because there was no trust.”

The post-doctoral fellow continued to emphasize that his research indicated the importance of road safety policies and that potential solutions need to fit in a proper context. “If we are going to target the norms of drinking and the norms of driving, you can’t just have one campaign for all society,” he advised. “Depending on who the problem group [is]… you have to look at how they interact with the police and political institutions.”

Ignacio Nazif-Muñoz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Health and Social Policy at McGill University agrees. Nazif-Muñoz told The Bull & Bear in a separate interview: “Trying to find a universal policy [for road safety] might be problematic: countries have different trajectories, some might be ready to implement certain policies whereas other countries might not be ready… what makes sense in Sweden might not make sense in Tanzania.”

Nazif-Muñoz explained that cooperation and coordination were essential in any policy or campaign that attempted to impact road safety. “You need to try to work with schemes that allow for different stakeholders to try to find solutions together,” he said. “We have to look at different elements that are happening in each country to come up with a solution.”

The Comparative Health Systems Program continues its event series throughout the semester, raising awareness on campus about public health and global health issues through conferences and exchanges. It will host an upcoming conference on March 11th, open to the McGill and Montreal community.

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