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Driven round the bend before getting driver's licence

By unknown | Oct 31, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Michael Wines

Michael Wines

Cullen, a laconic fellow with disheveled hair and a cigarette sagging from his lips, is manoeuvring 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. Cullen swivels constantly in search of cars behind him, cars in his side mirrors, cars in every alley, cars at every intersection.

Cullen is a South African driving instructor. His job is to teach people how to pass South Africa's driver's license examination, a trial of the 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 that's not the only problem. Securing a South African driver's licence is not as simple as passing the K53 test, which is not simple at all. It also requires that one apply for the licence, a bureaucratic process so daunting that it set off riots this year.

It is also helpful to learn South Africa's extensive and occasionally charming traffic code, which sometimes rates children between 6 and 13 as one-third of a passenger.

If one does all this, one can proceed to take the K53, and flunk on the merits.

For the K53 is just part of the Catch-22 that faces every aspiring motorist here: To drive legally, one very sensibly needs a licence. Except that licences often seem impossible to get.

All right, not impossible. They are nevertheless very difficult. In a two-year period that ended in July, the national transport ministry says, 1,5million people applied for driver's licenses. Fewer than four in 10 actually received them.

Overall, the government says, South Africa has about 8,5million motor vehicles and 7,8million licensed drivers.

The transport minister said in July that so few motorists get licences because they do not study hard enough for their exams, and he could be right: the K53 is hardly a no-brainer.

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 vehicle 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."

l Charles Mogale is on leave. His Flipside column will return next week.


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