Cellphone distractions now top the list of risky driving behaviours in South Africa, according to new research revealed by Discovery Insure at the launch of the UN-JCDecaux Global Campaign for Road Safety.

Discovery CEO Robert Attwell says that the short-term insurer has access to over 19-billion kilometres of driving data – with 500 000 daily trips – which enables the company to have an in-depth understanding of factors influencing vehicle accident risks.

This data shows that while environmental factors like road conditions and vehicle factors contribute to road fatalities, human factors like driver behaviour play the biggest role. Notably, the data revealed that cellphone distractions are the biggest contributor to road accidents in the country.

The research shows that over 60% of motor vehicle fatalities are influenced by five behaviours: drinking and driving; cellphone usage while driving; excessive speeding; aggressive driving; and lack of vehicle care.

“Discovery Insure’s investment in telematics has been critical in unlocking key insights that enable us to create a nation of safe drivers,” says Attwell.

Data showed that cellphone usage has the biggest impact on the likelihood of a claim – even higher than speeding. A mere 20 seconds on the phone in each trip increases accident risk by over 60%.

Discovery Insure’s clients who submitted accident claims were 52% more likely to have used their phone than exceeded the speed limit on the day of the accident.

Data also showed that driving at night significantly increases the risk that an accident is fatal as night-time accidents – happening between 10pm and 4am – are nine times more severe than daytime accidents. In addition, there has been a shift in driving behaviour with an increase in accidents relating to cellphone usage, while night-time accidents have reduced.

“We’ve seen a positive development as far as night-time accidents are concerned which was partly attributed to increased usage of our Uber benefit,” says Attwell. “But now the increase in distracted driving accidents overshadows that.”

South Africa’s deteriorating road infrastructure also contributes to the risk of road fatalities and economic losses. The Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) reported that poor road conditions accounted for 22,2% of motor vehicle fatalities in 2022. It estimated that they caused a 3,29% or R200-billion loss to the GDP that year.

“Combining these insights with our driving data, we can see that driving behaviour has a bigger impact on road fatalities than road conditions,” says Attwell. “The data shows that parts of the country with the best roads may have high motor vehicle fatalities because of bad driving behaviour.”

Limpopo has some of the best roads, but drivers in that province have the highest number of driving events that cause accidents. They exceed the speed limit significantly. Limpopo’s road fatality rate per registered vehicle is the highest in the country. On the other hand, the Western Cape has good road infrastructure and good driver behaviour. This has led to lower road fatalities.

“This shows that road safety is a complex problem in South Africa and it requires a multifaceted approach that largely drives a change in driver behaviour,” says Attwell.

Also emerging from Discovery Insure’s research and deeply concerning is that accidents usually occur on the same roads or intersections, with 1% of locations being where 27% of accidents occur. So key interventions at these locations can help to improve road safety.

Attwell says the Vitality Drive programme aims to create safer drivers. Data shows that drivers on the programme reduce their accident risk by 15% within the first month of joining the programme – and they have a 34% lower fatality rate than the South African average.

The programme’s telematics technology helps drivers understand the good driving behaviours that will increase their rewards so they adapt behaviours. The more they engage with the programme, reaching the highest Vitality Drive status, their frequency of accidents reduces by 70% and accident severity drops by 35%.

Discovery Insure has applied insights from Vitality Drive to address the problem of potholes in Johannesburg. It launched Discovery Pothole Patrol in May 2021, in partnership with the Johannesburg Road Agency and, recently, Avis Southern Africa.

Attwell explains: “Through the Discovery Pothole Patrol we can participate in improving road conditions and reduce road hazards by repairing potholes. Since its launch, the Discovery Pothole Patrol has fixed over 220 000 potholes resulting in estimated savings of over R33-million to Discovery Insure and bringing much value to all road users in Johannesburg.”

Children are often involved in car crashes as pedestrians on the road – usually on their way to school. In The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) for 2020, it was reported that about 10,1-million learners walked to their educational institution in all nine provinces citing reasons that the school is nearby or close enough to walk from home; public transport was too expensive; and transport not available.

Discovery launched Discovery Safe Journey to School (DSJTS) in partnership with Afrika Tikkun to improve pedestrian safety, especially for children and to provide safer scholar transport.

“The DSJTS programme has transported over 18 000 children safely to and from school in 2023,” says Attwell. “The programme has also recorded no fatalities since inception.”