Road wear an ongoing concern

22nd November 2019 By: Darren Parker

There are multiple factors that contribute to deteriorating road conditions in South Africa, and the road freight industry cannot be held solely responsible, says Road Freight Association (RFA) CEO Gavin Kelly.

The volume of cars, trucks and buses using the roads far exceeds the volumes of 30 to 50 years ago, as does the mass of trucks, buses, bakkies and trailers, with advances in design technology enabling them to carry heavier loads, he explains.

Kelly adds that a fair number of South Africa’s roads were built a long time ago, and they were not built to withstand either the current volume or mass of vehicles.

“If a road wasn’t designed to handle the mass and volume of vehicles then it will not remain in working condition for long,” he points out.

Kelly acknowledges that road wear is a pressing issue, one that will require billions of rands every year to combat; however, there simply is not enough money in the national fiscus to finance this without further taxing citizens.

Suggestions for how to pay for national road refurbishments include increased fuel levies and increased tolling, congestion- and distance-based charges, as well as parking charges. None of these proposed solutions have garnered much public support.

Kelly says the road freight industry shoulders much of the blame for the state of the roads.

He tells Engineering News, however, that while some trucks do overload, thereby contributing to shortened road life spans, it is the inadequate road design, poor maintenance and insufficient control that are the true causes of the country’s deteriorating road infrastructure.

Therefore, old roads need to be upgraded to handle modern traffic; however, upgrading needs to be performed in conjunction with proper maintenance, he points out.

“A road might look fine on the surface and, therefore, doesn’t receive maintenance, but it is actually crumbling beneath. The tarmac is just a waterproof structure on top of the real road structure. If we don’t maintain roads properly and manage their decay, we get to a stage where the road disintegrates underneath,” Kelly explains.

He says repairing roads once they are damaged to this extent requires complete rebuilding, from the foundation up, and is not simply a matter of patching up potholes using tarmac.

However, no amount of repairing, rebuilding or maintaining will help if traffic is not properly controlled by the relevant authorities.

It is in this regard that matters of overloading should be addressed, and where Kelly notes that many blame the road freight industry.

He claims that as little as 4.5% of trucks are overloaded, according to data collected from weighbridges along national routes.

“However, these national highway routes are just a small part of the total national road network. The vast majority of the total road network is neither controlled nor policed nearly as well in terms of load monitoring,” he laments.

Kelly says issuing a ticket for overloading is not an effective solution because no amount of fines paid will decrease the load on the vehicle, which will simply continue to carry its load back onto the road and continue driving.

“A ticket doesn’t suddenly make the load lighter,” he quips.

He calls for better management of those operators and companies who skirt the law. The RFA can only implement operating standards, but the policing thereof remains in the hands of law enforcement.

However, in some cases, road damage is not caused by overloading, but rather by improper loading techniques.

“Often, when operators load or offload their vehicles, one of the most common problems is that they do not redistribute the mass properly,” Kelly notes.

Although offloading may decrease the overall mass of the vehicle, the axle mass distribution can become uneven and lead to unnecessary road wear.

Kelly is encouraged by technological developments, such as that of smart truck beds that can weigh individual pallets and even relocate them to ensure even weight distribution.

“Excessive road wear is placing much drag on our fiscus, and we need to continue to encourage the adoption of improved technology, smarter load management and better policing to help alleviate the sheer amount of road repairs needed in South Africa,” he concludes.