Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Pedestrians and other road hazards

“The people in this town only know the pace of the cow,” said my aunt, who lives in Pietermaritzburg. She was responding to my husband’s moans about the way the locals took as long as possible to cross the road, so that they were still strolling along the tarmac long after the lights had turned green for us. It drove him dilly, especially because no amount of hooting and Joburg-style gesticulation achieved any evidence of haste.

I was reminded of pedestrians and other road hazards the other night at around 6.30pm when, driving along a dark road on my way home from work, I saw an indistinct shape loom in my headlights and lurch across the road. Had I been speeding, as do most of the drivers around here, I might well have hit him. Dressed in dark clothing, he was nearly invisible even when lit. I hooted to hurry him on his way, but he demonstrated no urgency whatsoever. I can only assume he was drunk.

It doesn’t surprise me that so many pedestrians end up squashed on our roads — nearly 50% of all road deaths are pedestrians — because so many of them appear to be frightfully keen to put themselves forward as candidates for Darwin Awards. I have yet to witness a South African pedestrian actually bother to make any effort to hurry out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, despite the fact that roads are for cars and not people. Perhaps they are under the impression that the vehicle will come off second best, in which case they are horribly misinformed.

What is the reason for this laissez-faire attitude? Surely the fact that so many people do get killed is enough to persuade our pedestrians to approach the roads with greater caution? Perhaps, say, use the nearby pedestrian bridge instead of running across a six-lane highway? Over the years I have been told, repeatedly, by various individuals (none of them scientists, granted), that the reason that black South Africans get run over is that Africans lack depth perception and so cannot judge the speed of oncoming vehicles. Gospel. Whether this is true, I have not been able to ascertain, although there is evidence that pictorial depth perception is cultural.

On the other side of the equation is the fact that South African motorists seem to regard the presence of a pedestrian in the road — legally or not — as a form of target practice. If they spot you, they speed up. I remember how, when I visited Germany, it was the zebra crossings that left the greatest impression on me. If a German motorist even suspects that you may be thinking of crossing the road, he or she will apply his German engineered brakes and wait for you to cross safely. Same in Australia (although I had a few close calls there, especially with housewives in large SUVs who don’t pay attention because they’re on their mobile phones). Try the same in South Africa, and you will end up rolling like a rag doll around the axle of the nearest double cab, or suddenly sharing the business end of a Hi-Ace with your friendly taxi driver and the person collecting the money.

Of course, as with many things in South Africa, who gets to be a pedestrian and who gets to be a motorist are still defined by our history, and the inequalities that persist for various complex and interrelated reasons. (Oh yes, and the lack of safe, affordable, reliable and convenient public transport, but that’s a whole other issue.) Let’s face it, for the most part, white people in this country do not walk. They drive. Walking is for exercise, not for getting from A to B. In fact, white people walking on the side of the road are cause for increased scrutiny, even amazement, unless they’re walking the dogs in Parkhurst while stopping at some chi-chi pavement cafe en route.

As for the pedestrians of Pietermaritzburg, I hear there are cows in the streets these days; they lope down the hill to graze in the botanical gardens, or so I have been told. With the cows and the potholes and the roadworks that reduce one’s average speed to 3km/hour, at this rate, it might make sense to slip back into those jodhpurs, pull on the boots, and go back to riding horses.