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Minibus competition teaches taxi drivers safe driving skills

AFTERMATH: A minibus taxi collided with a Mazda 323 sedan in Barry Hertzog Avenue in Emmarentia, western Johannesburg.Pic. PETER MOGAKI. 25/02/2010. © Sowetan. 20100225PMO:Taxi lost control and collided with Mazda sedan at Berry Hertzog in Emarentia, west of Johannesburg.PHOTO:PETER MOGAKI
AFTERMATH: A minibus taxi collided with a Mazda 323 sedan in Barry Hertzog Avenue in Emmarentia, western Johannesburg.Pic. PETER MOGAKI. 25/02/2010. © Sowetan. 20100225PMO:Taxi lost control and collided with Mazda sedan at Berry Hertzog in Emarentia, west of Johannesburg.PHOTO:PETER MOGAKI

THE mangled wreckage from deadly head-on collisions is usually what lands South Africa's notoriously aggressive minibus taxis in the headlines, an image some drivers are working to change.

In a country with nearly 14000 road deaths a year - one of the highest rates in the world - minibus taxis are often blamed for the carnage.

In February, a driver was sentenced to prison on murder charges for killing 10 children in a minibus-train crash after he ignored a lowered safety boom at a railroad crossing.

But a competition is attracting thousands of drivers hoping to improve the taxis' reputation and avoid such deadly accidents: a contest for the title of the nation's safest driver.

"We are learning how to take care of our passengers. We are also learning how to save ourselves," said driver Molupe Leboto, 29, at a session in Germiston near Johannesburg.

Behind him a fellow driver in a bright orange T-shirt does manoeuvres between traffic cones while others wait in the shade.

They take turns reversing and parking on an obstacle course while an instructor evaluates their skills. Then they take to the streets for a road test.

More than 5000 drivers are competing in the Number 1 Taxi Driver Campaign, hoping to win one of four spanking new minibuses of their own in a contest meant to teach advanced driving, business skills and simple manners.

Driving instructor Sthembiso Segolela said: "They're always rushing. Their bosses want money, so they're working under very strict conditions and it pushes them to go over yellow lanes, to drive a little recklessly and a bit faster."

Operators are frank about their shortcomings.

"They bend the rules sometimes, but the thing is if you do that once, or you do that twice - many times it will cause an accident," said a taxi driver.

The R30-billion industry, which ferries about 25million people a day, suffers from the image that all its drivers are reckless, speeding and blaring their horns through the streets.

They've also come under fire for abusing women who wear miniskirts and knocking over pedestrians in road-rage incidents.

Segolela said: "Road rage affects innocent drivers on the road. That's what we're trying to discourage, so that drivers can try to get emotional intelligence so they know how to control their emotions."

On top of that, pressures from competitors and passengers stress out conductors, who are paid by commission rather than by the hour, creating the incentive to carry as many people as quickly as possible.

"They used to get angry very fast. As they're customers, it is patience I need to have most," said driver Musa Mndebele, 35.

In an industry with many illegal operators, the campaign encourages regulation by requiring contestants to have a driver's licence and public transport permit. The authorities support the campaign, sponsored by Brandhouse, a distributor for labels like Johnnie Walker.

Both South Africa's major taxi associations encourage their members to take part.

"They protect the commuter, because that is where our bread comes from," said Francis Masitsa, chairman of the National Taxi Association, whose members account for 40% of minibus operators. But more than 30 minutes with an instructor is needed to turn the tide.

A taxi academy was launched last year by the South African Taxi Council, the other major industry association, but has yet to get off the ground.

Road safety officials have set up roadblocks on provincial borders across SA and courts have meted out severe punishment for taxi drivers responsible for road deaths. The driver in the train-crossing tragedy was jailed for 20 years.

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