LAST July we drove back home from the Eastern Cape via Transkei. Forty years ago this stretch of the N2 was regarded with extreme trepidation by drivers as posing every conceivable danger: hazardous road layout and poor surface, careless pedestrians and stray animals. What’s more, through a fiction of apartheid policy, it was notionally not part of South Africa and at Umzimkulu and Kei Bridge there were time-wasting border controls. Further on at the Ciskei border, which was all too easy to miss, drunken soldiers occasionally took pot shots at motorists.

Things are very different these days and the main road through Transkei is largely very good. There are still the animals and pedestrians, but they are easier to avoid now; and the towns, while resembling something akin to driving hell, are mainly small and simply require dead-slow speeds, great patience and a sense of humour. But on the open road what is immediately apparent is a staggering contempt for the highway code and an apparent suicidal delight in risk taking. No matter what the speed limit – 60, 80, 100 or 120 kph – someone is trying to overtake a law-abiding driver. One’s rear-view mirror is permanently filled by a large impatiently driven van or SUV (some of them larger than the houses of many South Africans) seemingly attached to the exhaust pipe. The concept of safe following distance is treated with disdain.

Anyone averaging the reasonable and economical speed of 110 kph on a national road is the object of extra aggressive scorn. Double white lines and no overtaking signs are apparently a frivolous result of a delivery of surplus paint; blind rises and corners no obstacle to impatience. The results are frequently in the news (but generally only when they come in multiples): many dead and broken bodies. Just two days after we travelled the highly dangerous stretch from Umzimkulu to Pietermaritzburg last July, a bus carrying 16 people in the opposite direction was hit by another vehicle and all the occupants ended up in hospital. Luckily in this instance no one was killed.

Every year over 15,000 people – drivers, passengers and pedestrians – die on South Africa’s roads: mass carnage. Thousands more are permanently injured. Those affected in one way or other amount to the population of a medium-size town. There are endless explanations for this tragic state of affairs: long distances, poor road conditions, and badly maintained vehicles. All of these undoubtedly play a part, but July’s 4,000 kilometre trip to the Western Cape and back demonstrated that the main cause is quite clear: mindless and aggressive human behaviour. Some of this is fuelled by alcohol and drugs: some years ago a survey of truck drivers revealed that two thirds were driving under the influence of one or other; some of them both.

During the trial of Oscar Pistorius, South Africans became aware of a very important concept in Roman-Dutch law: dolus eventualis. It simply means that we can be held legally liable for the foreseeable consequences of our actions, part of our obligation as citizens to act responsibly at all times. It is a concept seemingly totally unknown to legions of South African drivers. You do not have to venture onto the national roads to experience this. There was a time when taxi drivers took the blame for most of the bad driving in urban areas. They remain prime culprits, but their behaviour has been copied by many others. Ubuntu and the rainbow nation are long since dead and buried judging by driving culture, which is self-centred and recklessly egocentric. English law is replete with quaint phrases, one of which is ‘demanding with menaces’. Here, South Africans drive ‘with menaces’. A lack of respect shown to other users of the road is endemic.

At the beginning of December we shall go through the annual charade of the Christmas/New Year road safety campaign, doubtless employing the meaningless phrase ‘zero tolerance’. About 1,500 people will die as usual on the roads during the so-called festive season. What is generally forgotten is that this is the normal death rate on the roads throughout the year regardless of holidays and traffic volumes.

Nothing will change in any meaningful way because this is all the result of accepted behaviour. Like gun massacres in the United States, people continue to die in numbers because there is a lack of real will to make a change. Society has to all intents and purposes come to regard such death as part of normal life.

It is a sadly mindless state of affairs, the product of macho societies that deep down revere violence. In South Africa, about 30,000 people die violent, unnatural and premature deaths each year. This has been the case for years and no one seems capable of – or really interested in – doing anything much about it. It has, quite literally, become accepted as part of the state of the nation. It is hard not to believe that this has some sort of link with the collective national psyche together with a cynical culture of indifference and corruption. All these anti-social behaviours feed off each other.

And if this were not bad enough, legislation dubbed the Drunken Drivers Bill is now making its way through parliament. Its basic purpose seems logical enough: to do away with the disastrous Road Accident Fund, which is a honeypot for corrupt lawyers acting on behalf of persistent litigants. Under the Road Accident Benefit Scheme everyone will be paid out, including drivers at fault many of them under the influence. It will cut out the tainted and greedy lawyers, but encourage drunken driving. Probably even more people will die on South Africa’s roads. (A matter of terminology: why are road crashes called accidents? Most are the foreseeable consequence of irresponsible action as in dolus eventualis above). Critics have pointed out one obvious antidote practised in Britain and in the often-maligned Zimbabwe: compulsory vehicle and third party insurance. But that would undermine the anarchic, Wild West component of the national psyche.

Driving behaviour tells us a great deal about the ethics and attitudes of a society. South Africans should be doing a great deal of soul-searching about theirs.