/South Africa’s updated driving laws are coming 1 July – but there are issues

South Africa’s updated driving laws are coming 1 July – but there are issues

The Road Traffic Infringement Agency (RTIA) says it is considering a number of options for the rollout of the Aarto Amendment Act and the new demerit system from 1 July 2021.

In its annual performance plan for 2021/2022, the agency said that this will include a possible delay of the points demerit system, as well as a potentially staggered provincial rollout.

The Aarto will penalise drivers and fleet operators who are guilty of traffic offences or infringements by imposing demerit points that could lead to the suspension or cancellation of licences, professional driving permits or operator cards.

It will also encourage the payment of fines and reduce the burden on South African courts, by removing the initial option to elect to appear in court.

The number of points incurred will be dependent on the nature of the traffic offence or charge. Currently, there are over 2,500 separate charges.

All drivers will start with zero points. Once the limit of points is exceeded, a driving licence is suspended for three months. Driving a vehicle during this ‘prohibition period’ is a criminal offense, subject to a fine or jail time.

If a licence is suspended for the third time, it will be cancelled, and a driver must start from scratch with a learner’s licence, etc. Demerit points do decrease by one point every three months, so drivers can work their way back down to zero.

While the RTIA said it is committed to moving forward on the new system nationally from July, it recognised that the Covid-19 pandemic and reliance on third parties could lead to administrative issues.

The agency said that the planned system is heavily reliant on a number of outside parties, including the Department of Transport and the South African Post Office, and that any compromised state of readiness may expose it to litigation.

For the new system to work, the RTIA said that it needs for all of the following to be in place:

“The certainty on the state of readiness by all external stakeholders remains a challenge and out of the control of the RTIA,” it said.

Possible alternatives 

While a full national rollout is the priority, the RTIA said that a staggered rollout of the new system from July might be more feasible.

As one possible alternative, the agency has proposed that the Aarto Act will apply nationally July, but the point demerit system will be introduced at a later date post-rollout.

However, the RTIA acknowledged that this too could be problematic as the Aarto could then be seen as a cash generator, as the system will still introduce new fines and monetary penalties, rather than as a road safety intervention.

“Should this scenario be the most preferred, it will have no impact on road safety nor will it have any impact to road crashes, injuries and fatalities,” the road agency said.

An alternative staggered system could see the Aarto introduced provincially, with the system introduced on different dates in different provinces from 1 July 2021 to February 2022.

This approach would be informed on the provinces which are almost ready for the new system, with Gauteng, KZN, Limpopo and the Western Cape being first.

This is seen as one of the least risky options by the RTIA as it will give the post office and the NCR time to prepare their services.

Profit over safety 

While the system faces potential administrative issues, critics have said that the new system is fundamentally flawed for favouring profit over road safety.

Late chair of Justice Project South Africa (JPSA), Howard Dembovsky previously said that the changes envisage a vast flood of revenue which, in South Africa, has proven to be an open invitation for corruption in SOEs. Dembovsky was a vocal critic of the Aarto Act, and remained so up to his passing in April 2021.

“Fines have been tripled, fees have been doubled, infringement schedules have been modified to maximise fine revenue from speeding especially, and a preposterous ‘infringement penalty levy’ has been incorporated into the new regulations,” he said at the start of the year.

The infringement penalty levy, which charges R100 per infringement notice, will, on its own, generate R1 billion per ten million fines issued, excluding the value of the fines themselves and the fees the RTIA may add to them.

It is conservatively estimated that between 15 and 20 million fines a year will be issued countrywide once Aarto is fully implemented.

The Automobile Association of South Africa (AA) has said that the changes make a mockery of the claim that the law is intended to improve road safety in South Africa, and rather point to the creation of a mechanism to improve revenue collection.

Other issues which the AA believes infringes on citizens’ rights include:

“The original architects of Aarto took note of the problems with postal delivery of traffic fines and realised that registered mail achieves reliable service of these notices.

“The return to ordinary mail is regressive and inexplicable, and these changes combine to create the impression that the current draft regulations have not been thought through carefully enough, and are designed to actually actively hinder citizens’ and their rights,” the AA said.

It said that the regulations will make it as difficult as possible to understand and comply with the law, encouraging citizens to simply just pay to resolve the matter quickly, even if they have legitimate contestations.