Safe Road Travels in South Africa → How to Keep Alert!

South Africa is a vast country with many long, winding and seemingly endless roads. Most are well kept and easy to navigate, and driving on them is a piece of cake.

Others, particularly in rural areas, present more of a challenge to drivers and can be downright dangerous.

Additionally, given the high crime rate in South Africa, drivers are often faced with much more than just traffic hazards when on the road.

Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind if you plan to drive while visiting this beautiful country.

Hazards on South Africa's roads

First and foremost, expect other drivers to overtake you. This may occur on any street, and in any lane (including the shoulder), so keep your eye on your mirrors. If you see someone trying to get by you, it‘s best to just pull over and let them pass.

Use your judgment, though. Don‘t do it if you feel that doing so would place you in harm‘s way, like while coming around a sharp bend.

Also be alert when you come to an intersection with a four way stop, which are common in South Africa. Rule of thumb is “first come, first served“, so pay attention and wait your turn to avoid a possible collision.

Minibuses are popular means of transportation in South Africa; however they are also quite dangerous. More than 60,000 accidents involving minibuses occur there each year with nearly a thousand being fatal.

Street marking in the more rural parts of the country is lacking and in many cases nonexistent. It‘s not uncommon to come upon a road that isn‘t marked on your map, or for street numbers and addresses to be totally different from what you expected. It‘s particularly important to understand where you are going before you set out so you don‘t get lost and end up in an unsavoury area.

Be sure to watch for pedestrians in the road. School children often have long treks to and from school on foot, and sometimes wander into the road. Additionally, many farmers don‘t bother to fence in their livestock so don‘t be surprised if you come around a bend and see a cow or goat in the middle of the street. During daylight hours this may not be an issue, but at night, especially on roads that aren‘t properly lit, it can be extremely hazardous so drive carefully.

Wildlife on South Africa's roads

One of the many reasons travellers head to South Africa is the amazing diversity of wildlife including the famous "Big Five": lions, leopards, rhino, buffalo and elephants.

However if you are planning to take a drive through the many game parks and reserves, there are some important safety factors to consider:

  • It is called wildlife for a reason. These animals are in no way tame and it is vitally important to give them the space they need. Any animal which feels threatened or harassed can become dangerous especially if they have young ones in tow.
  • Avoid driving at dawn or dusk, this is when most animals are out actively feeding. If you want to see animals at these times safely, do it via a guided tour.
  • Don't alight from your vehicle except at designated spots and rest stops. 

  • If wildlife does cross your path, stop the vehicle, turn off your engine and sit there quietly with no noise i.e no radio, music, talking.. nothing. Keep your windows up and wait for them to pass.
  • Do not feed any animals from your vehicle. Not only does it disrupt their natural diet, it can place you in danger. Baboons in particular are attracted by food and can become quite aggressive.
  • Always follow any reserve or game park signage or rules displayed.

Roadside crime risks in South Africa

Unfortunately, as beautiful as South Africa is, it is also home to a host of criminal activity. You may feel you are safe in a vehicle, but there are still certain dangers that you may encounter that could place you in harm‘s way. Here are some things to keep in mind and a few safety tips to avoid becoming a victim while behind the wheel.

Perhaps the most important rule to follow is keeping your doors locked and windows rolled up at all times, even if you‘re in an area that you feel is safe.

It‘s not uncommon for thieves to wait near intersections and on highway off ramps, approach a car when it stops and attempt to rob the occupants. Keep your valuables out of sight to avoid attracting the attention of would-be thieves.

Carjacking is an issue, particularly in more isolated areas and on secondary roads in Northern KwaZulu Natal and Zululand. The roads leading into and out of Kruger Park are also popular places for carjackers to strike. Be cautious of any debris you see in the road. It may have been placed there purposely by a criminal in an attempt to get vehicles to stop. Never get out of your vehicle to clear anything from the road, just do your best to drive around it.

It may go without saying, but never stop to pick up hitchhikers. No matter how lost or pitiful they may appear, chances are their intentions are not good. It‘s not worth the risk. If you see someone thumbing for a ride and feel they are in trouble or need assistance, your best bet is to stop when you get to the next town and report the situation to authorities.

When parking your vehicle, always keep it locked with the windows rolled up and all valuables completely out of sight. Whenever possible, use a parking garage or store parking lot. You will likely have to pay a nominal fee, however these places are usually safeguarded and feature security staff to help maintain your vehicle‘s safety. If there are no facilities like this around, select a busy and well-lit area to park.

If your vehicle happens to break down or your tire goes flat, pull over as far as possible and put on your emergency lights. Remain in your vehicle at all times, with the doors locked and windows up. Most rental car companies offer road-side assistance, so call them if available.

If you‘ve been in a collision or are hurt, call the police, but do not get out of your vehicle. Some crafty scam artists have been known to deliberately cause accidents with the intention of robbing the victim once they pull over. If it was a legitimate crash, the police will be able to assist in sorting it all out safely.

If you see another motorist who has broken down on the side of the road, no matter how much of a Good Samaritan you may be, do not stop to help. Either have a passenger call the police or stop in the next town to advise an authority of someone needing assistance.

Scams are common in South African. One scam pulled on unsuspecting drivers involves criminals posing as the traffic police, pulling someone over for a supposed traffic violation and then demanding an on-the-spot fine. Take note: there is no such thing. If you get pulled over and asked to pay a fine, simply refuse.

The larger cities and towns have their share of crimes involving drivers. While stopped at a traffic light, remain alert at all times. Keep an eye on your mirrors for anyone approaching. People may attempt to sell you something; however it‘s advised that you don‘t buy merchandise under these conditions (no matter how tempting the price may be).

Be especially aware of folks who come up and immediately begin washing your window. If you don‘t intend to give them money, you need to stop them immediately or the situation could turn ugly. There have been reports of verbal abuse and even damage to vehicles. This practice is actually illegal and if you allow it to happen, you could be considered just as guilty as the person committing the offense and held accountable by law enforcement.

Getting around South Africa can be a challenge, given its massive size. One of the best ways to see the country is by renting a vehicle, but as with any driving adventure, doing so does not come without risk. As long as you are prepared and know what to expect, as well as what areas and situations to avoid, your road journey is much more likely to be safe and uneventful.

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5 Comments

  • Lonnie coetzee said

    Such horse Shit, I have never seen any free roaming wild animals in south africa. It is only in the national parks and thet are worlds away from Cape Town. And very few unlit areas.

  • Cassie said

    Lonnie, you do not drive around much? I live in the Northen Cape and regulary encounter free-roaming animals, domestic (donkeys, goats,dogs etc) as well as game (kudu, steenbok etc). That is one of the reasons that a "bullbar" and aftermarket bumpers are fitted to most bakkies (pick-up trucks / utility vehicles) in rural areas. Although it will not be of much help if you hit a kudu or donkey, a correctly designed and installed "bull-bar" (attached directly to chassis and angled forward /downward to deflect animal under vehicle - away from radiator and windscreen) saved my vehicles on at least five occasions (twice steenbok, a goat and two dogs).

  • Liu said

    Cassie,

    drive slow/careful and stop hitting animals :)

  • Archie22is said

    True about the animals, more especially outside cities and on secondary roads. The national routes are well taken off so you don't have to stress there.

    You also have to look our for portholes on the road that will shit your spinal discs and do great damage to your vehicle. Crime – I need not say more here, you know the situation. Don't be stupid!

    Other than that, South Africa is a great country!

  • John Monteith said

    Where my father in law lives in kommetjie 45 mins south of capetown you get babboons sunning themselves on the roads to get a heat in the morning.

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