Do our roads promote reckless driving?

Even though it is as wide as the N2, Helen Suzman Boulevard has a speed limit of 60kph. Can we really blame drivers for driving closer to 100kph?

As a sprawling car-dependent city, Cape Town is no stranger to traffic offenses and accidents. Speeding, drinking and driving, and the accidents that often result are not uncommon. Every so often one may witness such incidents first-hand, but the evidence is hard to miss. After each weekend one notices broken glass and debris, tyre tracks leading straight off the road, and traffic lights and sign posts that stood no chance against the vehicle that obviously took them out. We often feel sadness when reading about multiple students killed in an accident, even if the driver was proven to be drunk.

I’m often quick to curse at people speeding, especially when I’m riding my bicycle or walking. When I’m driving though, I find myself driving a lot faster than I should on some roads, at least fast enough that I would curse at myself if I was cycling or on foot. I acknowledge my fault, but seldom change my behaviour, as there are reasons for driving in such a way. Most often it is the width and nature of the road that invites such driving behaviour, or perhaps I’m also tired from a long day and wish to get home as soon as possible (even if driving faster is only going to get me to my destination marginally quicker).

This got me thinking about who is really at fault. Don’t get me wrong, drinking and driving and reckless driving may not be excused. However, the design of the city and its roads induce this kind of behaviour. We build wide roads, even in residential neighbourhoods, which inherently invites faster driving. Our attempts to deal with speeding is most often to reduce the speed limit and put up signs, possibly installing a speeding camera. Consider Helen Suzman Boulevard in Green Point. It is essentially a freeway with 3 or 4 lanes (and a wide shoulder) in each direction, yet the signs indicate a speed limit of 60km/h. Of course such a road invites driving at speeds closer to 100km/h, which is the result.

Consider the case of drinking and driving as well. In the largely suburban city that Cape Town is, there is no viable alternative to driving to get back home late at night. Subsequently, people drink and drive. We respond with the odd road block, the lowering of the legal blood alcohol limit, and increasing punishment if caught. Regardless of the implications of getting caught and the risk and irresponsibility of such behaviour, people will still do it. The limited resources of law enforcement means that they only catch a very small number of drunk drivers on the road.

So if we acknowledge that humans are irrational, impatient, selfish, responsive to spatial cues, willing to take risks, and unwilling to stay sober while socialising with peers, are they really at fault? Or are reckless and drunk driving offenses the fault of the planners, engineers, and government bodies who have created these wide roads and this sprawling car-dependent city without taking these human traits into consideration?


There are 4 comments

  1. Andres De Wet

    Interesting take and definitely turns the psychology of bad road habits on its head. Albeit that some things are just plain wrong or illegal, one cannot deny the very factors you put to screen which contribute to “temptation to flout the law.” We have to find more ways to curb bad road habits than just fines or prosecution; we need to re-engineer our roads to suit the human psyche.

  2. Lisa Kane

    The current freeway and major roadway system in Cape Town was planned, and for the most part built, during the 1960s, based on imported US standards and with the express intention of ensuring high speed movement for motorists. To do this the highway engineers created wide, open, forward vision, and a gentle (no surprises) drive with wide lanes. This “simple” environment facilitates speed, without a doubt. It also perpetuates our imagination of “speed” as normal, or aspirational, in the city…..

  3. Schalk Marais

    They are not “imported” US standards… Most freeway and other road geometric designs are fairly the same throughout the world… Regardless of this it is not the design of the road that is the issue. It is the reckless use of the road by users who do not have the capacity to make the call between safe and unsafe driving speeds/behavior for the circumstances at hand…. Bottom line is: We have too many people driving cars who in fact do not have the skill to operate a wheelbarrow. Add to this our driver’s license testing… do they really teach you how to drive… I don’t think so.

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