The police statistics that there were almost 2 500 hit-and-run accidents in the first half of the year are appalling, and the fact that many of these involved a pedestrian who must have been injured or killed makes it even worse.
Hit-and-run involves a wide range. Sometimes it is just bad parking, where a driver bumps an empty parked car causing minor damage but no injury. But even here there are drivers who just then vanish because they do not want to pay the repair bills, leaving the owner of the hit car with those bills and even if they are in the minority with comprehensive insurance they might still have to pay a percentage of the repair costs.
Unless there is a witness, and a witness alert enough to get the registration number if the car actually has plates fitted, there is not a lot the police can do. But anyone seeing this sort of accident should at least try and be helpful by describing the car and giving what they can remember of the number. A police officer can hunt the databases and probably trace the other car.
But the accidents get progressively worse. There are accidents where someone clips another car in traffic, or even bumps into the back of the car in front, and does a quick getaway or a U-turn. And most drivers are checking for injuries to themselves and their passengers as the first priority rather than trying to get details of who hit them, expecting that in the normal course of events the other driver will stop and rush over to see if everyone is all right.
Even witnesses are more likely to be trying to render help than recording details of the runaway car.
Serious accidents involving more than one vehicle are almost always reported, simply because both vehicles have suffered severe damage and the driver who rammed the other cannot vanish since their vehicle is unlikely to be in a fit state to move immediately.
But when it comes to cyclists and pedestrians this is not the case. The car might have the odd dent, and the driver in their protected metal box is unlikely to be injured. But the pedestrian or cyclist is totally unprotected and will be injured or killed. And there are drivers who just rush off, selfishly hoping no one noticed or at least cannot identify them.
Yet in many cases if that injured pedestrian is rushed to hospital, and in most cases the person doing the rushing will be the driver of the car that hit the pedestrian, they might still live. It does not really matter at this stage who was at fault, and frequently pedestrians were at least as much at fault as the driver, but getting a life saved and then letting the police sort out what happened later.
A lot of the law that compels everyone who is involved in an accident, who or just sees one, to stop and offer assistance is built around the need to save lives. The only time you are allowed to drive on is once you have found out that others are giving all the assistance required and you are not needed.
The other reasons for the law are to sort out what happened and make the necessary police reports, since there will be decisions to be made who was at fault and so who pays, or gets their insurance company to pay. But this is just paperwork or at worse a day in court. The critical factor is saving lives.
Magistrates dealing with serious charges under the Road Traffic Act tend to take the most severe views of the failure the stop and render assistance. Sometimes even when a pedestrian is killed and there are charges of culpable homicide it might be decided that the pedestrian was the one at fault, or mostly at fault. That can result in an acquittal for the driver or just a fine.
But if the driver failed to stop then the book gets thrown at the driver and it is rare, even if the pedestrian was found to be totally at fault, for the driver to escape a jail sentence on the second charge of failure to stop.
Court reporters have even seen cases where a defence was put forward that the driver was frightened of the gathering crowd, but a magistrate was prepared to listen only if the driver reported the accident to the police and called an ambulance within a couple of minutes, just enough time to pull into a driveway and start phoning.
This is because when all is said and done, the primary need to render assistance, regardless of the circumstances, overrides all other considerations. And this is right and the courts need to enforce that, totally.
Of course there is need to be police investigations later to see what charges need to be laid, and if the charges are serious for a court to make the final decision as to the degree of blameworthiness of the driver and of the pedestrian. That is just something to be endured as the evidence is assessed at the traffic police station and in the courtroom.
But the deaths on the roads, and the number of pedestrians that are hit, does require campaigns for greater care by both motorists and those on foot. Drivers need to realise that a pedestrian can do odd things, or be walking at night in dark non-reflective clothes on the wrong side of the road, or even be lying half drunk on the verge, and be prepared at all times to deal with this.
Pedestrians are normally more alert for traffic, since they are vulnerable, but most pedestrians have never driven a car and might not realise the dangers they are in. Even a carefully driven car cannot stop in a couple of metres so pedestrians need to make sure they are visible at a reasonable distances and that they too act sensibly and obey the rules of the road.
There is a tendency, among everyone, to assume the Highway Code is just there to pass a provisional drivers licence test. Yet everyone whether they drive or not needs to read it and keep updated. This is why it has already been translated into Shona and Ndebele with other languages on the way.
Schools need to stress to all children what the rules of the road are for pedestrians and cyclists and other safety measures, and there is nothing wrong with doing that every year for every grade and form. Drivers need to buy the latest edition of the code and read it every few years, so they remember and have up to date knowledge.
The police try hard with their suggestion, that pedestrians without reflective strips on clothes tie a bit of reflector, or even just a white hanky, to their arm and walk on the right side of the road. They also advise drivers to be wary of driving at night and to be have proper lights and to take care at all times. But the message needs to be hammered home continually. And when there is a hit and run the police need to devote the resources to hunting down the offenders and making it clear that just accelerating away is simply not a viable option.