The Road to a South African Driver’s License
JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 29 — “You will never drive this way again in your life,” Cullen says.
Cullen, a laconic fellow with disheveled hair and a cigarette sagging from his lips, is maneuvering a clapped-out Toyota down a suburban Johannesburg street. He yanks his hand brake up at every stop. He lowers it only after he has hit the gas and the Toyota is straining forward like a leashed Labrador after a biscuit. Cullen swivels constantly in search of cars behind him, cars in his side mirrors, cars in every alley, cars at every intersection.
Occasionally, he watches the road ahead.
“I need a drink,” he says.
Cullen is a South African driving instructor. You would drink, too. His job is to teach people how to pass South Africa’s driver’s license examination, a trial of the country’s K53 method of defensive driving. Herein lies a problem, for the K53 method resembles normal driving about as much as Snoop Dogg resembles Perry Como.
But not the only problem. Securing a South African driver’s license is not as simple as passing the K53 test, which is not simple at all. It also requires that one apply for the license, a bureaucratic process so daunting that it set off riots this year. It necessitates eye examinations before applying for a license and before the road test — and all over again, should one fail. It often demands that one game the driving examiner, who may wish to flunk the hapless applicant to meet the day’s failure quota.
It is helpful to learn South Africa’s extensive and sometimes charming traffic code, which sometimes rates children between 6 and 13 as one-third of a passenger and includes a road sign that depicts a stick-figure man astride an ostrich.
All right, not impossible. They are nevertheless very difficult. In a two-year period that ended in July, the national transport ministry says, 1.5 million people applied for driver’s licenses. Fewer than 4 in 10 actually received them. Over all, the government says, South Africa has about 8.5 million motor vehicles and 7.8 million licensed drivers. The nation’s transport minister said in July that so few motorists get licenses because they do not study hard enough for their exams, and he could be right: the K53 is hardly a no-brainer.
Based on Britain’s national driving exam, the K53 effectively requires an applicant to imagine that he is driving a live claymore mine under assault by guerrillas in bumper cars. The hand brake must be engaged silently at all stops (ratchet-clicking is strictly forbidden), and all mirrors must be checked every seven seconds. Points are deducted for glancing at the gearshift, driving too slowly, failing to ensure that head- and taillights are securely attached, failing to check the play on the clutch pedal, failing to look beneath the car for leaks and several score other sins.
There are many ways to fail instantly, including permitting one’s automobile to roll backward, even an inch, while stopping or starting.
Road safety experts hail the K53 as a textbook lesson in defensive driving. True, some of the minutiae are “perhaps overkill,” said Gary Ronald, the spokesman for the South African Automobile Association. “But it does work.”
In practice, he acknowledged, it appears that very few people pass the K53 on the first try. South African drivers tend to throw caution not just to the winds but into a deep ravine, often with a derisive farewell blow of the horn. Red lights are frequently treated like a matador’s red cape, especially by drivers of so-called combis, minivans that move a vast share of the population to and fro each day.
Even though the K53 method has been used for a dozen years — or perhaps because so few drivers have obtained licenses — traffic accidents and deaths are rising fast, to 15,400 fatalities last year, up nearly 9 percent from 2005. The fatality rate per mile traveled, the best measure of road safety, is five times that in the United States, which is in turn higher than in most developed nations.
Another reason may be that the exam is stacked against some applicants. The $25 fee to schedule a driver’s exam is split between the national and local governments. Some localities, Mr. Ronald said, have become so fond of that easy money that they are notorious for flunking applicants, apparently in the expectation that they will pony up $25 more to reapply.
And many might, were it easy to reapply. It is not. License applicants are supposed to apply by telephone, which has proven less than successful. “I have attempted to call the call center — in quick succession — 271 times. Not joking,” one miserable soul wrote in November on the Internet site drivers.com. “I have gotten though to music and voice prompts 18 times. Each time this lasts for three minutes, before you are disconnected.”
Early this year the government installed a computer system to manage auto-related matters. The system promptly broke down. In the ensuing chaos, supplicants for driver’s licenses began to line up outside motor vehicle offices before sunrise, waiting hours to get a precious application form. In July the police rushed to one Johannesburg office after throngs of furious would-be drivers tried to break down the doors to apply for licenses.
“People seem to judge by the long queues that the system is not working,” a spokesman for the Transport Ministry said at the time. He added, soothingly, “It’s not true.”
To be sure, South Africans’ licensing misery is, in one odd way, a sign of progress. “A lot of the backlog is caused by the huge upsurge in the number of formerly disadvantaged people who can now afford to buy a car,” said Les Stephenson, the motoring editor of the Independent Online Web site. “Unfortunately, the traffic department just can’t keep up.”
Indeed. In one instance sure to warm the heart of any applicant, a heroic woman recently locked herself and her two children, ages 8 and 2, inside a Cape Town motor vehicle office after bureaucrats refused to hand over her new driver’s license on the grounds that they were closed — 15 minutes before the posted quitting time of 3 p.m.
Few drivers are so persistent. With genuine licenses so hard to obtain, a growing black market offers bootleg ones, usually obtained from corrupt motor vehicle officials, for $150 to $450. In the last two years, investigators found more than 42,000 fake licenses on the government’s own computer registry, and arrested a thousand people, including scores of bureaucrats, on charges of subverting the licensing process.
That total does not include undetected scams, which are legion, and fakes sold by forgers and thieves. Among those caught in the act is the speaker of the South African Parliament, Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile, nabbed in 1997, but not prosecuted, for procuring a phony license from a government testing center.
Ms. Mbete had a ready explanation. She was, she said, too busy to stand in line.