Germiston, South Africa. 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 14,000 road deaths a year, which is one of the highest rates in the world, minibus taxis are often blamed for the carnage. A driver in February was sentenced to 20 years in prison on murder charges for killing 10 children in a minibus-train crash after ignoring a lowered safety boom at a railroad crossing.
But one competition is attracting thousands of drivers hoping to improve the taxis’ reputation and avoid such deadly accidents: a contest for the title of South Africa’s safest driver.
“We are learning how to take care of our passengers. We are learning also how to save ourselves,” driver Molupe Leboto, 29, said at a session in Germiston, near Johannesburg.
Behind him a fellow driver in an orange T-shirt did maneuvers between traffic cones while an instructor evaluated his skills.
More than 5,000 drivers are competing in the No. 1 Taxi Driver Campaign, hoping to win one of four new minibuses in a contest meant to teach advanced driving, business skills and just simple manners.
“They’re always rushing. Their bosses want money so they’re working under very strict conditions and it pushes them to drive a little bit reckless and a little bit faster,” driving instructor Sthembiso Segolela said.
The 30 billion rand ($3.9 billion) industry, which ferries around 25 million people a day, suffers from an image that its drivers are all reckless. They’ve also come under fire for abusing women and knocking over pedestrians in road-rage incidents.
“They used to get angry very fast. As they are customers, it is patience I need to have most,” said driver Musa Mndebele, 35.
A taxi academy was launched last year by the South African Taxi Council, the other major industry association, but it has yet to get off the ground.