Pushback against Australian-like driving rules in South Africa

 ·13 Jul 2023

The Constitutional Court has declared the Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences (Aarto) Act valid, allowing the government to introduce a driving demerit system similar to Australia, despite public backlash.

In broad terms, Aarto would introduce a system where motorists would pay a penalty and incur points when a traffic infringement occurs.

As described in the Act, motorists will begin with no points and accumulate demerits when necessary. Currently, the limit is set to a maximum of 12 points, but the laws suggest an increase to 15 points.

Once a driver reaches 13 demerits, they will face penalties such as license suspension and may require retraining.

These laws are similar to international systems such as Australia and New Zealand. Speaking to CapeTalk, Layton Beard, the Automobile Association (AA) spokesperson, said that the now-declared constitutional laws are very flawed.

He said that in places like Australia and New Zealand, the demerit system works very well because it is a social ill to have a demerit on your licence; however, “in a country such as South Africa where it is easy to buy a licence, people are not going to care.’

“We need a behavioural change where there is harsh punishment for those who are badly behaved on the roads,” said Beard.

Aarto does little to reduce ‘carnage’ on the road and cannot solve a problem that requires boots on the ground. Beard said more is needed to be done.

“It’s going to be done by the same number of law enforces as we currently have, and we know that what we have is wholly inadequate.”

From a driver’s perspective, Beard said if you are a good driver, somebody who obeys the rules of the road and you do not drive negligently, your car is a good condition, and you do all the responsible things you are always meant to; this would mean little to the average driver.

Despite this, there is little detail on how it may affect everyday motorists and how it will be rolled out.

The spokesperson added that for the new system to be implemented efficiently, there is a massive administrative burden – something an already embattled government is unlikely to be able to handle.

In a statement to the press, the AA said it stands by its view that Aarto legislation is geared towards revenue collection and not promoting safer roads.

The association also previously noted that after the 2008 launch of the Aarto pilot project in the Johannesburg and Tshwane Metros, the shortcomings of the Act became apparent in practice and that attempts to rectify these shortcomings only created further issues.

“Introducing legislation will not solve the country’s road safety crisis. This merely creates an impression of action while noting will change on the ground, where it is needed. As part of our contention, we point to the fact that there is no evidence that the Aarto pilot project saved a single life,” the AA said.

Stefanie Fick, an advocate and executive director at the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), echoed the sentiment of the AA, stating that the Act with higher penalties, tedious and expensive procedures to be followed by the public, and the ‘total lack of prescription on visible policing’ will have little or no effect on improving road safety in South Africa.

“Merely legislating policy doesn’t make it rational or workable. Governments often suffer from the false belief that if the laws and regulations are in place, the people will comply,” said Fick.

“Irrational or impractical laws and a lack of transparency result in pushback from society, making systems ungovernable. The sad reality is that government begins to suffer from a crisis of legitimacy when it cannot exercise its power over people by effectively enforcing its legislation and policies,” said the advocate.

Legislative history

The latest ConCourt judgment overturned an earlier decision by the Pretoria High Court in January 2022 which dismissed the system as unconstitutional and invalid.

The ruling by the Constitutional Court paves the way for the Road Traffic Infringement Agency (RTIA) to roll out Aarto across the country.

“The decision by the Constitutional Court comes after a successful challenge in late 2022 by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), which argued that AARTO legislation stripped local and provincial governments of their right to self-regulation,” said the AA.

“OUTA took the matter to the Constitutional Court to confirm the earlier High Court ruling, but the Constitutional Court today dismissed this finding and in a unanimous ruling found the AARTO law to be constitutional and valid.”

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