Let me just say this up front, I am a petrolhead. I love fast/classic/modified/racecars. I spend lots of time at local racetracks and visit car shows to keep abreast of the latest trends in the auto industry.
There has been plenty of talk of late online about modified cars in Cape Town. This site has been quiet on the matter while other portals were quick to publish stories with their versions of the “facts” and plenty of rhetoric from the enthusiasts in the Mother City. I have read many reports and retorts from very vocal and passionate car owners.
Getting the facts
A few weeks ago I was asked to go live on a Gauteng radio station to comment on the status quo regarding modifications and the legality of it all. I did some homework to better prepare myself, read the relevant pieces of legislature and telephoned the man currently the nemesis of the Cape car culture, Alderman JP Smith.
Mayoral committee member for safety and security for the City of Cape, Mr Smith informed me that he was misquoted in an article and that the city of Cape Town was not “clamping down” on modified cars.
Illegally modified cars, as defined by the National Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996 are the main target of the traffic department, but no more so than before and applied to all sectors of the motoring public from taxis to trucks, cars (modified or not) and motorcycles. For those of you wondering, like I was at the time, almost 750 taxis were removed from the city’s roads since the start of December 2014, 501 of them minibuses.
Cape Town, like many major cities in SA, has an issue with illegal street racing. It is an activity that I despise and do not condone in any way, shape or form. Not only is it illegal, but places the lives of the racers and, worse still, the unsuspecting public in harm’s way. It really is a scourge that needs to be eradicated.
In a city such as this with a conveniently located racetrack there are lots of opportunities for speed freaks to satiate their adrenal needs, so there is no need for such activities to take place illegally.
After our chat Mr Smith invited me to spend an evening with Cape Town’s traffic police to witness the work they conduct, so a few days ago I rode along with members of the Ghost Squad as they plied their trade.
I was asked to meet the team at a municipal location on the outskirts of Cape Town, in a deserted, dimly lit car park. Here I met several members of the team, nearing 40 officers, who all gave up a weekend evening at home to patrol the streets making it safer for law-abiding folks.
I hopped into an unmarked car (a model one would never suspect) and rode shotgun with a very senior member of the team. Our vehicle would be the scout used to ascertain if any illegal racing activities were taking place. Even before we left the car park a call came over the radio to attend a suspected drunken driver situation. As it turned out the driver was FOUR times over the legal limit.
The hot spots for street racing are fairly well known so we casually made our way to the closest. Here we saw a few dozen cars parked up along the street with occasional “flybys” performed by some show-boaters. The officers in our car gave the signal and the entire squad of marked and unmarked police cars arrived on the scene blocking off any and all access roads.
Officers immediately set to work checking driver’s permits and car license discs. They also started to perform visual and physical inspection of the vehicles. These officers are motor vehicle examiners (MVEs) so are able to carry out checks in the same manner that a tester at a roadworthiness centre can.
At this site one Honda was suspended from further road use as the suspension allowed virtually no vertical movement.
Cat and mouse games
After that scene was cleared of all vehicles we made our way to another known spot. Here we spotted several of the cars that we had seen earlier. Racers just move on from one spot to another in a game of cat and mouse with the police. Someone among the crowd may have spotted the unmarked cars arriving on the scene as an alert went out to the crowd. There was a high-speed mass exodus of the roughly seventy cars.
In their haste to evade being stopped some drivers displayed behaviour that can best be described as dodgy: overtaking on the right-hand side yellow lane, diving through the grass verge, with some unfortunate circumstances (one broken CitiGolf front bumper and one BMW teetering on its belly).
Young and foolish?
At this second site fifteen vehicles were suspended for not being roadworthy. Several of these, I noted, were for tyres that were near bald, in one case with the steel belts poking through the rubber casing. Other offences included inconsiderate driving, lack of number plates, defective lights and failure to wear safety belts.
As it turned out the average age of the group is quite low. A few drivers were driving with only a learner’s permit, one unaccompanied and in one case the driver had NO form of permit to drive a car.
Traffic officers had to call several of the youth’s parents to fetch them, parents whom were not entirely sure where their children were and not very happy when they arrived on the scene.
Drawing the lines
I chatted to Adrian Long, principal inspector technical services for Cape Town traffic services, who was also on duty that night, about the application of the relevant act in terms of modified cars.
In fact one driver at the second road block was so keen not to fall foul of the law that he even had a set of COR papers with him, except that he drove like an absolute moron which earned him a fine anyway.
While Mr Long confirmed that each officer on duty that night was an MVE there is a level of discretionary application. The laws and application to the car enthusiasts, who have legally modified cars, does leave a little room for judgement.
In recent weeks the Cape Town traffic department has been discussing the concerns raised by the car clubs and owners of modified cars trying to further clarify to the public that which is legal and which isn’t.
Arm yourself with knowledge
The current legislation states that any modification of, or tampering with a vehicle’s safety design renders the vehicle unroadworthy unless it is done by the manufacturer or a registered body builder. If a registered body builder decides to make any alterations, they are required to re-register the vehicle and send it to the South African Police Service for clearance before the alteration is considered legal.
The National Road Traffic Act and SANS 047 (South African National Standard) is extensively used by our motor vehicle examiners when conducting roadworthy checks on vehicles. SANS 047 is very specific on unroadworthy issues. If car owners are in doubt then you should consult the above mentioned national standard. If further in doubt, liaise with a road test centre for clarity.
Any move that helps to rid our roads of dangerous vehicles, I support wholeheartedly. Along with insufficient driver training, I believe that unroadworthy vehicles is a major contributing factor towards road accidents. The sooner we can remove these from the roads, or get them to a more acceptable state, the safer we’ll all be.