Are driving schools, VID in a corrupt relationship?

…concerns for road safety as drivers get licences corruptly

By Clayton Shereni

Human error is the largest cause of road carnage and drivers are major culprits in most of these unfortunate events that often claim hundreds of lives every year; leaving thousands with dream-shattering injuries.

In Zimbabwe, the Vehicle Inspectorate Department (VID) oversees the roadworthiness of motor vehicles and has the sole right of issuing drivers licenses.

It is the prerogative of VID to conduct road and provisional license test at their 23 depots found across the country.

In simpler terms, the VID is the gatekeeper and plays a critical role in building road safety as they determine who drives and who does not, which vehicle is certified fit and which one is deemed unfit.

Although human error is inevitable in any sector of human endeavour, it still has to be asked whether or not the VID, which claims to have a vision of becoming a leader in the provision of world class service in road safety management in Southern African Development Community (SADC), is a compromised department.

Issuing a license to an undeserving person is putting the lives of many people on the line as the driver would be prone to many mistakes.

The enforcement of standard quality controls is now questionable and the sense of safety which the commuting public once had has somehow faded as cases of alleged bribery involving VID officials increase.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw a lockdown being put in place, with road tests and learner’s license tests being cancelled since March.

Significant lockdown relaxations were, however, made in October, and VID depots are now busy with aspiring drivers who had been shut out for the duration of the lockdown.

On October 18, 2020, a VID official Bhekimpilo Sithole appeared before Masvingo Magistrate Candice Kasere, after he allegedly swallowed bribe money totaling to US$60 soon after conducting a test with a prospective driver.

He was busted by Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers before he had swallowed the other US$40 he had received from the learner driver.

On his initial appearance, Sithole was not asked to plead to a charge of criminal abuse of office but was remanded out of custody to December 16, 2020 on $3000 bail.

In an interview with TellZim News, national VID director Dr Johannes Pedzapasi said they had put in place various mechanisms to reduce corruption.

He said other measures to complement the Electronic Learner’s Licence Testing (ELLT) in efforts to reduce chances of corrupt behavior in the licensing process were being rolled out.

“We have many strategies in place to fight corruption and some of these are internal control measures that flag malpractices and give indicators. We have done the ELLT which is the first phase and the second phase will come to the actual driving test in an effort to reduce human interface.

“We want to first make sure that all our depots have an ELLT system first before we roll out the second phase. We were also affected by Covid-19 but we hope to put everything in place in the year 2021,” said Dr Pedzapasi.

For one to acquire a driver’s license, they have to write a learner’s license test which would be followed by practical driving lessons by the many driving schools available.

A certificate of competence would then be issued by the VID when tests are done and the prospective driver is found to be competent enough.

If the alleged corrupt deal between Sithole and the prospective driver had materialized, the driver could have walked away with a license even if he/she had failed the test.

Corruption at this level costs many lives on the road as incompetent drivers would be in charge of vehicles that share the same roads with everybody else.

Passengers Association of Zimbabwe (PAZ) director, Tafadzwa Goliati said passengers were the biggest losers in a society where permission to drive is given corruptly.

“Driver training should be done extensively so that the lives of passengers are protected. Zimbabwe has been producing some of the best drivers in SADC and that standard should be maintained. The law must be enforced so that those who are conniving in the act are punished and face the full wrath of the law,” said Goliati.

The bribery malpractices at VID also implicate driving school instructors who stand accused of being conduits for bribes that are given to VID officers to facilitate easy issuance of certificates of competence.

Instructors at driving schools are alleged to be playing the middleman’s role in these illicit transactions.

In response to these allegations being levelled against driving schools, Zimbabwe Driving Schools Owners Association (ZDSOA) spokesperson, Noah Marima said their association was working round the clock to make sure that their instructors do not engage in corrupt activities.

“Our instructors are strictly required to observe the law and the highest level of ethical behavior. There could some cases of instructors being involved in corruption and we condemn it because it defeats the whole purpose of the lawful business that we do. We are working flat out to make sure that those issues of corruption come to an end,” said Marima.

With the best part of the road test being done in the VID premises and in public view, some might think that it’s difficult for a prospective driver to bribe officials but many are times when this actually happens.

In 2018, 54 VID officers from different depots were fired for fraudulently issuing 199 licenses to undeserving drivers and awarding fitness certificates to un-roadworthy.

Minister of Transport and Infrastructural Development, Joel Matiza in April 2019 launched ELLT to minimise interface between VID personnel and prospective drivers.

However, the initiative has not plugged all possible chances for bribery since VID examiners still have a major influence on the other elements of the licensing process.

Drivers that get a licence through corrupt means are dangerous drivers because they would not have gone through the necessary training and testing rigours that are expected of them.

Much of road carnage is a clear result of human error while other factors such as dilapidated roads contribute less.

A collective action by those responsible for quality driving, prospective drivers themselves and law enforcement agencies can do a lot to stop corruption and, ultimately, road traffic accidents.