There is a loophole in Regulation 231 of the National Road Traffic Act (NRTA), which allows for learner transport operators to overload their vehicles with children.
The amendment states that any child under the age of three is not counted as a passenger in a vehicle that is on the road. Furthermore, two children between the ages of three and six are counted as one person. Three children between the ages of six and thirteen (or are
1,5 m or less tall) are counted as two people.
What this essentially means, is that the law allows for overcrowding of young children in vehicles. This means that in an eight-seater vehicle, there can legally be more than 16 children within that vehicle, depending on what their ages are.
This, in a nutshell, explains why South Africa has such a huge problem with learner transport operators, who often use the loophole in the system to their advantage, making a profit through squeezing many children into tiny spaces.
Those most affected by this phenomena are parents from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds as they often make use of public transport to get their children to school.
This is according to Peggie Mars, the founder and managing director of Wheels Well, a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting learner transport safety and increasing awareness on issues related to this matter. “A person is a person, no matter how small they are. Every child should be able to sit on a seat with their own seat belt on. I am trying to speak to authorities and get them to hear us and work on changing the legislation, but they are not listening… The government has other issues that they are addressing at the moment,” Mars said.
She added that she is also outraged by a law (regulation 250 of the NRTA), which states that parents may not pay transport operators that allow for their children to be transported to school in a bakkie. “This essentially means that for as long as the bakkie driver transports the learners free of charge, they may continue getting into the vehicle, which does nothing for the safety of those learners,” Mars said.
While some parents are unaware of these overloading conditions, some simply overlook it and take the risk – all in the hope that their children may get schooling education as often learner transport is expensive, transport providers are few and public transport is a hassle for many to use.
“Socio-economic conditions allow for this practice to go on and on and often, the transport operator uses this parent vulnerability to their advantage,” she said.
She asserted that school and parent communities need to start creating conversations and look into ways that will make the government take notice and quickly change legislation.
“While parents may feel helpless because the law in many ways allows for the overcrowding of children between the ages of 3 and 14, at the very least then, parents can look into other factors, such as whether or not the vehicles their children are hopping into are safe or not, are the tyres smooth, is the driver using the correct kind of licence, do the lights and brake pads work, that sort of thing,” Mars added.
Where issues are present, they should alert the authorities about these issues. “The onus is on these communities to use their collective power,” Mars concluded.
To get a free copy of the vehicle checklist that Mars recommends all parents use when trying to check if a vehicle is safe to transport your child, visit http://www.wheelwell.co.za/tick-the-boxes-for-school-buses-in-the-interest-of-children-in-road-safety/