Miriam Mannak
Miriam Mannak

‘Ag, there are no roadblocks so I can drink’

There she was. A pretty blonde mommy of a darling daughter, cruising to wherever she was going in her shiny red Ford Fiesta. While she was busy SMSing on her cellphone, she forgot to use her indicator. Instead of going straight ahead she turned right. Next to her, her daughter — a pretty little angel in a white dress with pink flowers — was sitting on her knees, leaning with her hands on the dashboard. She smiled, mommy smiled. A happy little family. Bliss.

What is wrong with this picture? As far as I know EVERYTHING!

In South Africa, when it comes to traffic and road safety, there seems to be this prevailing slack mindset comprising elements such as “that’s not gonna happen to me”, “ag, there are never roadblocks so I can drink”, “who cares?”, “I will be fine, trust me, I will be fine. I have been driving for XX years” and “mind your own business, it is my life”.

It is a mentality that is found across all segments of society. While minibus drivers skip red lights, cut you off, and ignore railway track warning signals, yuppie boys from green leafy suburbs have no issues with crawling behind the wheel after half a dozen dops. In addition, scores of adults from all walks of life see no harm in letting their offspring bounce around in the back and front seats. In Cape Town in particular, the non-use of indicators is a pandemic and so is speeding and texting while driving.

Ooooh, you think I am exaggerating now? Then please do me a favour. Please have a proper look when you are on the road. For an entire day, please monitor how many times people:

a) Drive while using their cellphone;
b) Do not use their indicators;
c) Don’t wear their safety belts;
d) Do not have their children strapped in;
e) Drive too fast;
f ) Skip red lights;
g) Have no issues crawling behind the wheel after a night out;
h) Drive in cars that are not supposed to be on the road;
i) Sit in the front passenger seat with a child on their lap — no safety belt; and
j) Transport others in the back of their bakkie.

Look people, the statistics do not lie. They simply don’t. Every year, approximately 15 000 people die on our roads. That is 41 people EVERY DAY, which comes down to almost two people an hour. In other words: Since I started writing this column, one person has died in traffic and another one is about to get hit but a car, flung through a windscreen or run over. That is a not a result of people attaching value to road safety.

Personally, I have forgotten how many times I have cursed at people who see their indicators as mere decoration. I have forgotten how many times I had to swerve out of the way because of some idiot being preoccupied with the other person in the other lane. Just one of my friends, and I have heaps of them, has a hands-free set that he uses all the time. He happens to be from Europe. I have forgotten how many times I had to ask friends to use their safety belts. I am fed up of being annoyed when people jump behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks too many. “But there is no public transport,” is usually the reply. “Otherwise we’d … ”

Bullshit. Utter bullshit. You cannot ignore your own responsibility and sensibility by blaming something else for not existing. There are ways to have fun without putting yourself and others in danger. What about taking a cab back home? What about having a designated driver? What about calling a Rikkis taxi? What about one of those “you drink we drive” services? What about drinking less? What about drinking water in between dops?

Why this rant? I will never forget an accident site I witnessed as a reporter a couple of years ago. It was horrific. Two cars had collided on the N1. One person died: a small child. By the time the boy, who had been sitting in the front seat without wearing a safety belt, hit his skull against the tarmac, it was game over.

I will never ever forget the look on his mother’s face. Utter sadness. Devastation. Humiliation. Grief. Anger. Hopelessness. Disbelief. But most of all I saw guilt. Guilt because she had known better. Guilt because she could have prevented his death. Guilt because she had not been thinking. Guilt because she knew she was the one to blame. Not for the accident, but for her son’s death.

Now, every time I see a young child in the front seat who is not wearing a safety belt I think of that little boy who died a couple of years ago. Like him, the little blonde thing did not realise the necessity of a safety belt. Her mommy, however, the person responsible for her safety, did. Right?

  • Realist

    If you remind any of these ‘good’ citizens of any of these offences, like I did a couple of times in the past, you get sworn at and threatened with medieval-type retaliation. With the incompetent police and Keystone Cops Metro tubbies just standing by there is only one thing to do: develop strong defensive driving techniques and stuff everybody. I know kids will be among the ‘everybody’ but unfortunately, that’s the way this shitty world functions.

  • http://lennymaysay.wordpress.com Lenny

    Miriam, the only thing that’s going to change these attitudes is active visible policing.

    As long as our fat cops are content to passively sit in the shade, being revenue collectors, instead of enforcing the law, our bad driving habits are going to persist.

    I’ll readily admit that speeding is dangerous, but our traffic gurus have raised it onto an alter of worship, as the holy cash cow.

    How many drivers who have just received a R200 speeding fine in the post exclaim in embarrassment, “Damn, I’m never going to do that again.” Certainly not many. However, some are more likely to boast, “Ha! Idiots, they didn’t get me while I was doing 160kph just before that.”

    Active visible policing. Surely it’s worth a try. Our cops might even lose a few kilos without having to spend time in the gym on my tax money.

  • Judith

    Thanks for this – we had a Jeep overtake us in the right turn lane because I (silly me) keep the speed limit. It almost hit the car coming towards it. We caught up two robots later and asked the driver why he had done this, pointing out the dangers. Well after my partner was sworn at and punched plus being told “You’re old and going to die soon” by a very large and aggressive man (my man weighs 60kg), we were encouraged to leave it alone. No this should not happen! We as citizens should be able to enforce the law to protect ourselves and we can if we support each other in doing so. A citizen’s arrest is perfectly acceptable in these cases. We just hand over our arrestees to the police – nhowever we do need support from other road users. It is a llot more useful and less costly to obey the law. Every time you break a minor law, you give someone else the gap to break a major law, because you make the law invalid

  • Robin Grant

    You forget to mention that most of the 15000 killed on our roads are pedestrians.

  • Greg

    I agree and what further bothers me about these people is that they normally have the biggest mouths when it comes to other issues confronting us! They have no problems doing the things you write of and more, as long as someone else is not doing crime!
    The law is the law and wether we are disregarding the law with regards to the issues you write about or other offences (Eg Murder, Rape, theft,corruption,bribes,fraud,racism,etc), breaking the law is a criminal offence, all of us should take responsibility for our actions no matter how small we perceive our criminal offence to be or wether we believe we may get away with it or not. We should stand firm on laws, socially acceptable behaviour & other pricipals.
    Parents…be sure children are watching you and they are not only observing your behaviour & attitude, they will one day also replicate it!
    No matter what the issue before us, change begins and ends with each one of us!

  • Wondering

    A great many South African drivers are simply selfish. Also, self discipline is not a popular characteristic.

    For taxi drivers rules of the road are perceived as white rules, and therefore meant to be broken. For other drivers it’s a case of “If we can’t beat them, join them”.

    Fantastic!

  • Andrew

    Hear hear. Very good article. We really don’t take care on the roads and the attitude that most South Africans have really is sick. I’ll admit that I have driven when I’ve had a few too many, but it’s something that my friends and I have decided must stop and we’ve been doing pretty well. We sometimes have to convince one of our friends to leave their car or crash at a friend’s house, but the person concerned is always thankful in the morning. It’s really not hard to designate a driver or take a taxi home, instead of climbing behind the wheel.

  • Arelle

    You are 100% right – we are all criminals and the crimes in your list omit many others that we commit on a daily basis. Even the leader of our so-called movement for Morality is highly suspect. Until each one of us takes personal responsibility for crime, we will never be free.

  • http://www.victimempowermentsa.wordpress.com Vesa

    This is also something that plays heavily on my mind. We all heard about that horrific accident involving a taxi driver and all those children. There are two more opinion pieces here, if they interest you.

    http://victimempowermentsa.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/avoid-creating-victims-obey-the-law/

    http://victimempowermentsa.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/red-light-to-traffic-crimes/

  • Peter Joffe

    Wearing seat belts was made a law and still people do not wear them. I seem to remember that they were invented in the 1950’s and many of us wore them because it made sense and was safer and left your arms to do what they need to do, steer the care and not hold onto your seat. Others did not so they made it a law but they still do not wear them. I think that pictures of once normal looking people should be publised, this is after they have passed through an armour-plated wind shield. Before and after but Mariam you are right as many people are prepared to take the chance. Why? I cannot tell you because it is so STUPID. My wife is one of them and has already sustained serious injuries but happily not to her face as the air bag saved her face but broke her ribs – but guess what – – -she still won’t wear her seat belt. I got into huge trouble because I had no sympathy for her as it was self-inflicted injury, even though the accident was not her fault. 41 people are going to die today so all of us have to do what we can to ensure that we are not one of them. Being the best driver in the world is worthless when the road is full of idiots so we all have to do what we can to protect ourselves.

  • lizzy

    a pretty angle? angel, surely?

  • Ant

    You say it better than I ever can, I despair of the attitude of drivers in SA, I’m not saying Australians are faultless, but they are far less cavalier in their approach – for example, every weekend outside some of the bigger pubs in Perth, you can see rows of chartered busses, because people actually think about how they will get home after they drink. And taxis are not deathtraps so they use those. Also, I don’t think I have ever seen a child in a front seat or not in a child seat. And the road toll is a tiny fraction of what it is in SA, despite the population of Australia being half of what SA is. Also, people in SA blame their idiocy on others – oh, the taxis drive like idiots, what I do is nothing compared to them .. for example. boggles the mind.

  • D Greenside

    I concur. I’ve moved my family from Cape Town to Joburg just over 3 years ago. I have reached the point where I will only get on the road when it is absolutely necessary. The lawlessness on our roads make life outside home extremely painful and unpleasant.
    Initially, it used to be only taxi drivers who were the maniacs on the road. Nowadays, everyone and their dog believe that traffic lights are interim christmas decorations and they should accelerate when the light change to amber and red. Solid lines in the road have no meaning and indicators are just a nuisance. People, driving their expensive German sedans and 4x4s, seemingly cannot afford a few hundred rands to install a carkit or bluetooth hands-free.
    How does the authorities tackle all of these challenges? They sit behind a tree (this literaaly happens in my suburb) and record people speeding. That’s it.

  • http://www.donvalley.co.za Sitoliquido

    All very true, especially here in cape Town, Mirriam! I see parents with kids bouncing around the car – front and back seats – without seat-belts all the time. The question that I ask myself is, do these parents really love their kids or are they simply stupid beyond recovery? Must their love only be pronounced posthumously because that is what happens all the time? As for very slow drivers on the fast lane, non-use of indicators – as if to save petrol – and other ills…sometimes one gets tempted to wish for something bad to happen to such people so they can learn the hard way…

  • Gloria

    Well said, I wish you could make EVERY SINGLE SOUTH AFRICAN read this!

  • gail lee

    How about the dad who takes his son for a ‘spin’ and when I tell him that a colleague’s son lost his life this way, this man tell me :” But this is a BMW, you know!”
    So… drive a BMW and use your son as a human air-bag. My cousin’s daughter, on seeing this, commented:” Perhaps it’s not his own child…” Makes you wonder

  • Lentswe

    Ever noticed how difficult it is to keep kids strapped to their seats. They always want to see the goings on outside, but the sizes of the cars just swallow them up. Imagine riding in a vehicle with no windows, not knowing which direction you are going. So it is understandable from the kids point of view. The available baby car seats are usually of limited use and they irritate kids by depriving them of freedom of movement. I think that wise automotive designers must come up with a simple adaptable seat/solution that can be used by kids, allow them to be at eye level with adults, allow them some movement like the normal seatbelts do and also offer similar protection.

  • Ash

    As a pedestrian I regularly see people turning corners whilst still speaking on their cellphones, people whose children are in the front seat, people with their pets on their laps, people driving far too fast and dangerously. To say nothing of those who drive when they’ve had far too much to drink. It’s just plain awful and tragic.

  • Alexander

    Nice thoughts but completely wasted on South African drivers. As long as the first reflex to an obstruction on the road is hooting instead on slowing down, as long as the law enforcement does nothing to enforce the law and break it instead (I’ve seen police cars skipping red robots as much as taxi drivers), as long as taxi organisations have their bad driving habits subsidised by the Road Accident Fund instead of having to pay for the widows/orphans they creating every single day – nothing will change. We can only hope that evolution takes it’s course and the maniac that just needed to overtake with no regards to safety will be found neatly wrapped around the next tree on the side of the road without hurting someone else.

  • Ash

    Oh and in Gauteng recently, a really scary number of drivers going through red traffic lights as well …

  • shane

    The average ‘Joe’ South African needs a complete psychological ‘klap’.Friends of mine have seen these small breathalysers being sold at pubs etc, the aim being to make people aware of the dangers, checking yourself etc.What has happened is that these testers are selling up a storm for all the wrong reasons as ‘drinkers’ vie with each other to see who can get the highest reading on these throwaway testers… What do you say to that? Visible policing, stricter enforcement and horrendous punishment (licence revoked for 5 yrs etc) also dont seem to have any effect.. dont know what the answer is, we continue to die through stupidity, arrogance and a WTF attitude.

  • Ant K

    Everything you say is true, but we live in a country where we have great laws, but they dont really apply to anyone in particular, especially blue light convoys. So Joe citizen feels aggrieved and he can also “do anything” on the roads. The government only knows how to club the motorist with the big speeding stick, nothing else, so we who KNOW that this is done mostly as a revenue source ignore this. What we really need in this country is to have ADVERTISING of how to drive. On SABC TV and DSTV there should be endless adverts showing people HOW to indicate, not to dawdle in the right hand lane, advertise that the middle lane in the fast one and the right hand one is actually the overtaking lane. They should show in detail the effects of an accident like the one indelible in your memory. They should advertise in detail how easy it is for taxis drivers to show courtesy. Drum into peoples heads that they WILL be caught if they drive drunk and they will assume this to be the case. Most advertising works, but the tired old threat of speedtraps no longer provides a deterrent, just the discomfort of knowing bribery and corruption are alive and well. Getting cops to pull drivers over for plodding along in the middle lane and clogging roads when the left lane is wide open will go much further than a speeding fine.

  • Marianne

    I have more than once pointed out to a person with a child standing up on the back seat or sitting on a lap in the front, how dangerous it is. At one point even asked: “do you love your child?””then get the little one strapped in, off your lap” Even my stepson’s girlfriend, a grown woman of 32 with 2 little girls, 7 and 9 comes here with a child on her lap or leaves with one, so she don’t cry!! They are spoiled she said, I remarked that I dont think a child is spoiled sitting like that,you obviously want them both killed. Needless to say, I am not popular !! It is beyond me how anyone in their right mind can condone this practice. As for driving under the influence in this country, it is one great joke: ” I just close the one eye and steer by the star on the car” (Merc !) “I drive better if I have had a few”
    as Realist say: we need to develop strong defensive driving techniques to survive here.

  • AK

    @Lentswe, car child seats are there for safety, not to entertain children. That is your job as a parent, brother or sister. They are low in the car because in an accident this is a safer place to be than at window level. In most countries where child seats are mandatory children fast become accustomed to them and usually fall asleep as soon as the car moves. Clearly your children are those that are left to bounce around and distract the driver and now when you try and put them into a car seat they are in volatile revolt. My advice to you is to muzzle them and strap them in. They will soon learn to sleep in moving vehicles. It has also been proven that people who are fast asleep in accidents are far less likely to sustain injuries as their bodies are much more relaxed.

  • http://hardcopyink.com MLH

    My personal worst: kids who are allowed to stand on the centre console with their heads out of the sun roof. Believe me, it happens and in rush-hour morning traffic when many drivers are still drunk from the night before…
    Pedestrians killed are also often drunk and no one counts how many times other cars have managed to avoid them before one eventually can’t; especially on freeways.
    I have worked in, for and with road safety for 13 years and the pleasure of this post is that Miriam has an opinion and actually cares. Too many SA journalists trot out endless stats, cite a few Traffic Department heads and promotional programmes (that involve regulation) but seem not to care one way or another.
    I once used quotes from American newspapers in a road safety research project. Man, those journalist cared so much and were apoplectic about the unnecessary waste of life!
    How can any parent who daily put’s a child’s life at risk on the road, complain when that child later becomes a victim of what we acknowledge as crime: rape, murder and so forth?
    And here’s a thought…when a child flies from the back of a vehicle to the widescreen in a crash situation, it will more than likely kill an adult sitting in the front seat. Not only an orphan if he lives, but a murdering one…such a nice legacy to leave a child along with the crushed BMW. Buckle up!

  • http://ctnlist.co.za/ Richard Catto

    Actually the expected road death toll is about 7000 this year. Information from:

    http://www.eighty20.co.za/blog/2010/10/crash-2/

  • X Cepting

    @Lenny – I’m with you on this one. Cops on foot that are well-trained, respectfull and don’t take [email protected] from criminals are far more usefull than tire-burning pizza delivery cops.

  • Mike

    @Lentswe – Come on you must be joking. Oh, it’s so hard to strap your little darling into a seat because is deprives Diddums of the right to move around and explore, play with the ashtrays and get thrown through the windscreen when mommy dearest (you) slams on brakes to avoid the taxi that has just stopped to pick up a passenger.

    It is people like you who need to read this article. Carefully. Would you put a fence around a pool? Or do you think that this deprives them of the right to wander freely around the garden?

    By the way, (and this MIGHT make you think a little) I have seen reports of a number of incidents where the unrestrained child in the back of the car has actually flown forward and hit the driver (thats YOU) so hard on the head/neck that the driver has died as well… But you’d probably rather be dead than have to live with the guilt of causing the death of a child.

    /rant off

  • Super Dave

    @Richard Catto: You might want to read your link again, sweetie. 7,000 is the projected figure for 2012/13. And that’s based on incorrect 2009 figures anyway.

    More trustworthy (ie PROVEN, OFFICIAL) facts here: http://arrivealive.co.za/documents/Year_2009_-_Road_Traffic_Report_-_V2.pdf

    Not that even if it was cut to the laughable 7000 you suggest, it would be in any way acceptable.

    But I think you’ve missed the point of this post. Completely.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/miriammannak Miriam Mannak

    @Richard: 15.000 was the average figure mentioned by Arrive Alive.

  • Anon-3475638

    I disagree slightly on point e) “Drive too fast”.

    I’d rather use the term “driving at inappropriate speeds”. That includes overtaking someone at 150km/h while to their left, or going 60 on the right lane on a highway.

    In certain cases, however, speed limits are more of a hindrance than a preventative measure. When the entire road in front of you for several kilometres is clear, why should you limit yourself to 120?

    I completely agree on all the other points – us drivers are a really terrible bunch. But the only way we’ll get past this is if we – yes WE reading this – admit to our shortcomings and work to rectify it.

    Don’t you dare deny that you haven’t even once cut off someone while in a rush, or forgotten to indicate, or had a bit too much to drink before going home.

  • http://ctnlist.co.za/ Richard Catto

    I’d rather have MORE people die. We desperately need to reduce the number of people on this planet by any and all means possible.

    We should quit spending time and money researching how to save lives and divert all of our energy in reducing the number of humans alive.

    Currently there are 7 billion people alive – more people than have died in the entire history of the human race. Our planet can support a max of 15 billion. That’s about 25 years out, unless we figure out how to get rid of billions of excess humans who are destroying the planet.

    A few thousand dead every year to road accidents is made up in a few seconds. So quit crying over 15 000, because billions need to die and are going to when we max this planet out.

  • anon

    Kids can be taught that when they get into cars they sit on their car seats.these are available from birth to around 5yrs. I have 2kids both under 5.they never argue or fight wit me n that’s coz they know that safety comes 1st!!

  • Ant

    Some unbelievably stupid responses to this article by people who illustrate the point you are making. Anon-3475638 seems to think the law is just a guideline – wants to be able to travel at a speed determined by him/her – ok, how about I decide not to stop at traffic lights, what if I decide to run a stop street because I feel it is safe? The law is there to be obeyed, it is not there to cherry pick.
    You either follow the law, or you don’t and the vast majority on SA roads don’t – hence the road toll.
    Some people think that carrying their children in baby seats or using a seatbelt is optional. That is exactly the point you are making and what makes driving in SA so frustrating. Just because your kid moans about being in a baby seat is no reason at all to allow it to roam untethered in the car for 2 very good reasons 1) to stop the child from being injured or killed 2) It’s the law. What is wrong with the people of SA that permits them to think they can bypass the law so flagrantly and then justify themselves as several do in the comments on this article?

  • Ant

    Richard Catto – how about you go first?

    I know you are a troll and trying to get a reaction so I take the bait – you are right, the planet is overpopulated, but when people speed, take the law into their hands, they kill the innocent, the young. Also they cost us a tremendous amount of money in scraping victims off the tarmac which could be spent better. As you say, these people dying does not make a statistically significant difference, so the better way to handle overpopulation is to encourage compliance with law, to make people more prosperous and sustainable, in countries which are more compliant with the law , the birth rate drops – here in Australia, we are literally paid ( $6000 = R42K ) to have a baby.
    Your genocidal thinking may make sense to you and perhaps Idi Amin but it makes no sense either practically or ethically.

  • http://ctnlist.co.za/ Richard Catto

    @Ant: It’s not a troll to say the planet is seriously overpopulated.

    Crying over a few thousand dead on the road each year is like complaining that the orchestra on the Titanic played a few false notes – it doesn’t matter.

    Our ship is sinking. We need less people (by any means) but a few thousand is insignificant. Even if a million people died in a day, it would still be insignificant.

    Unless we shed about 3 billion people (probably to a pandemic) I don’t see our population growth slowing down enough to avoid complete and total disaster within our lifetimes.

    So I think bad drivers killing 15K a year is more a good thing than a bad thing.

  • Ant

    @Richard Catto – Hopefully you will take your own advice, I believe nembutal is available online. go for it, do everyone a favour ( by your definition). Meanwhile I will be rooting for practical solutions – like education about fertility and sustainable living, and trying ( obviously not hard enough ) to ignore genocidal comments that have no basis in reality.

  • http://www.facebook.com/WmRogers Bill Rogers

    My favourite is the Volvo driver who nearly wiped me out as he entered at speed the traffic circle I was negotiating: when I caught up with him he said, “But I said sorry.” I presume that he had airily waved a hand as he disappeared over the nearest hill, and had he in fact killed me he would (perhaps) have as airily said sorry to my widow and son before driving off in the new Volvo paid for by his insurance company. Perhaps it is time for insurance policies not to pay out for losses caused by the driver breaking the law, and so to make drivers more responsible for the way they drive. Furthermore, greater emphasis on the consequences of breaking the law is required: the mother whose blonde angel died as result of her neglect should be prosecuted for murder (see http://www.legalcity.net/Index.cfm?fuseaction=RIGHTS.article&ArticleID=1492628). Yes, she will have to live with her guilt until the day she dies but apart from that she gets off scot free; more adults may inclined to buckle up children in car seats if they know that if they don’t there could be time behind bars in the offing.

  • r mayer

    I would not dare to drive in Australia with a child who is not in an approved child seat. I would definitely be stopped if I was seen by a law – enforcement officer and if the child was injured even slightly in a road accident I would be in deep trouble

  • Peter Joffe

    A nice Sunday drive! None of us do that any more as it is not safe.
    Its great to take the dog for a drive as they love it. They stick their heads out of the window and enjoy the sights and smells that are out there.
    Suddenly a tyre blows and the car rolls. The driver and his passengers are safely strapped into their seats but inside there is a 30 kilogramme missile (the dog) flying around at 120km per hour that can kill or maim anything that it strikes.. Who cares about the dog? You can buy another one but if that ‘dog’ happens to be your child then its a whole different ball game. All passengers and the driver must be strapped in so that they can stay were they are in case of an accident. You are safer strapped into the car than you are if you are a missile waiting to be launched. Did you know that the maximum speed that the human body can endure if it comes to a dead stop, is 35km hour? Hit a wall at 35kmh and you will die. If you are strapped in then you have air bags, crumple zones and time to decelerate. If you are not strapped in you probably will smack into an unmoveable object at a much higher speed than 35kmh.

  • hds

    Part of what will need to happen is simply a shift in what is seen as socially acceptable. Most people here don’t seem really to frown upon drunk driving.

    I was a kid in Texas in the 1980s, a state that still sells beer at gas stations. I never heard about drunk driving. By the time I took the requisite driving course to get my license in the 1990s at 16, part of the curriculum was watching videos of the actual carnage left behind at drunk driving scenes. We were taught it was the ultimate taboo in driving.

    By that time, consequences were stiffer–cops were on the prowl around the times clubs closed and would pull people over for the slightest thing–expired tags, one headlight out–so they could see if you were drunk. First offense, even if there’s been no accident, results in a suspended license, a hefty fine and community service.

    While the penalties helped, I just remember that it wasn’t the done thing. It wasn’t cool to get in your car drunk. (And it made for funnier stories if you had to sleep in your car in the club parking lot overnight.) It was seen as stupid and irresponsible. Most bars will now call a cab and pay for it if you can’t. And it leads to a culture of people looking out for each other.

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