Preliminary Report on Pinetown truck crash as released by the owner of the truck

Mr. Pillay,

Our recent interactions and my appointment refers;

At this early stage, we would like to offer our preliminary findings, but we hasten to add the following:

  1. These are preliminary findings, based on the information and evidence currently in our possession.
  2. This is NOT a reconstruction report and will NOT be used in evidence if we testify in court. This is merely a document, sharing our current thought processes and opinion, as such.
  3. We have still not received any evidence from the SAPS and we reserve the right to amend if new evidence comes to light or is received.
  4. Many elements still remain unanswered and we thus limit our preliminary report on only what we know and have learned.
  5. We might venture outside of our mandate/function in this document, but we are attempting to share our thought processes based on the current set of facts, rather than our conclusive finding.
  6. Our final report will consist of our findings and will be limited only to evidence relevant to our expert testimony and our field of expertise.
  7. This report can only be made public as a function of decisions made by your office. I will not be releasing it myself.
  8. This report is released without prejudice;

Kindly note that we have completed our preliminary investigation into this matter and we can report as follows:

  1. Human Factor/s

Kindly note that we do not normally comment on issues of an administrative nature, but we would like to address the appointment and actions of Mr. Sanele May under this heading.

While there have been numerous criticisms expressed in the media, regarding the employment process relating to the driver involved in the collision, we found no evidence of malpractice or intent in this regard.

According to our instructions, the driver approached the company with papers that seemed legitimate, operating a commercial vehicle (already) and submitted to an interview and a test.

According to our instructions, Sanele operated the vehicle with confidence and skill, during this physical test and was then selected over numerous other applicants – based on his performance as a driver.

During the fateful trip, it is then also our instructions (as Tracker Reports confirm) that Sanele was able to operate the vehicle all the way from Durban to Johannesburg and almost the complete way back without any incident or report of a mechanical fault.

According to his tracking report, the vehicle was operating and functioning optimally at all material times and there are no incidents recorded that would indicate a loss of control or the use of an arrester bed, at any other time during his movements during his 4-day trip/s.

We also found that the tracker report clearly indicates that Sanele approached the Field’s hill (from the uphill side) at 34 Km/h and accelerated to 50Km/h, without stopping. This means that he would have failed to adhere to the legal requirements per road signs installed at this location.

After this, he proceeded to drive down Field’s hill but not in excess of the posted speed limits. The speed limits down fields hill are initially 60Km/h (for 61t vehicles) and later 80Km/h for all vehicles.

Sanele remained in control of his vehicle (with regards to speed) until AFTER he accelerated to 80Km/h. So – in spite of “what’s on video” we are not left with the impression that he was “speeding” prior to the loss of control.

  1. Law Enforcement Factors

On the issue of the verification of the details (validity of driver’s licenses, DP’s, etc) of Sanele, by the owner, we can comment as follows:

In the South African contexts, the Department of Transport is the custodian of driver’s licenses and associated permits/authorities.

As such, the department of transport by virtue of the Road Traffic Act has put in place various mechanisms to ensure that road users are qualified and authorized to operate vehicles on South African Roads and that Traffic is managed in a safe manner.

If we look at the issue of driver’s licenses and PrDP’s, we find that the DOT is then responsible for issuing local licenses or for entering into agreements with other countries (like SADC) regarding the suitability or acceptability of certain other licenses in our country.

Further to this, the DOT by virtue of the RTA has put into place various mechanisms and processes for the management, testing, issuing and validation of driver’s licenses and permits.

With this function being the responsibility of the Department of Transport and the function of detecting and acting in response to falsified driver’s licenses being the responsibility of law enforcement, we believe that Mr. Govender would have been within his right to trust the abilities of the South African Government to manage and control this aspect.

Short of choosing to pay a service provider to re-do the work of the Government (verifying that documents are not issued illegally), Mr. Govender would have been expected to trust that the Government fulfilled his mandate – especially if he saw the papers and tested the driver, as he did.

At no stage of the process of employment should it have been Mr. Govender’s responsibility to distrust the mechanisms or processes introduced by the DOT or other government departments to manage the documents in question.

It is then also my instructions that Sanele took active and intentional steps to produce and submit papers that were fraudulent. But this is not something that would have been immediately obvious.

I would also add that – according to my instructions – Sanele was not once during the trip of the four days on question stopped by law enforcement for his driver’s license to be checked or confirmed.

During this time, he would have passed by numerous traffic officers, police stations, testing stations, weighbridges and possibly even through road-blocks – if they were present.

If Sanele as then checked and his license/s found to be fraudulent, he would surely have been issued with a fine and perhaps even allowed to continue to drive on. But the owner would not have received any fine for this being the case since he would not be expected to be duplicating the mandate of the Department of Transport and Law Enforcement.

As an example of the steps taken by Government to prevent this very issue, I would like to remind you of the release of the new Credit-card type ID Books being issued of late.

  1. Mechanical Factors

As you are aware, records are available that support efforts to repair the vehicle after a report by a driver that the condition of the brakes had deteriorated. It is my instructions that these were handed over to the SAPS.

A prior driver had reported that the brakes on the vehicle had deteriorated and the vehicle was immediately removed from service.

That same driver was assigned to another vehicle with which he left in deployment without any further reports; so he was satisfied and that vehicle operated without incident.

Your records also show that new brake linings were fitted in an effort to repair the vehicle and that the vehicle was tested and declared fit for service prior to re-deployment.

After this, the vehicle was tested before it was handed to Sanele. Sanele, who was considered a skilled driver, was also handed the vehicle and allowed to do two test runs before he reported that he was satisfied that the brakes were functional, as required.

Only after this was the vehicle returned to service, filled up and deployed under Sanele’s care.

When we examined this vehicle, we found clear evidence of brake lining failure due to overheating and/or thermodynamics. The evidence of excessive thermodynamics was clearly visible, indicating a possibility that Sanele had operated the vehicle with a bias towards the use of brakes to the point of overheating.

It is vital to point out that there is a sign on the top of Field’s Hill, requiring a driver to STOP and to continue only AFTER engaging the LOWEST GEAR on his vehicle. It is our finding that Sanele seemingly did not do this.

Under these conditions, Sanele was known to have been travelling at between 60 and 80 Km/h (per the tracker report). Both are speeds he could not have achieved in the LOWEST gear on his vehicle.

This then supports our finding that the gearbox was removed and found to be in 5th gear in the high-ratio configuration, which would explain his ability to reach 80Km/h prior to the loss of control.

Further to this, we would find that Sanele likely used his brakes, as opposed to the gears (engine braking) to control the speed of his vehicle.

This would result in an increase in the temperature of the wheel brake system (drums/linings). This effect would prevail most on the wheels where the system design/setting dynamics are unique.

Often – in the case of commercial vehicles – only one wheel is attended to. A brake drum, brake linings or booster/slack adjuster is found to be faulty, worn or failing and would be replaced.

This will result in an “imbalanced braking system” in terms of the braking efficiency at the various wheel positions, but would NOT render the vehicle unroadworthy, since “cold braking” would be within statutory limits. Brake roller tests are done at low speeds, under ideal (normal ambient) conditions – not in excessive use scenarios.

Most modern vehicles fitted with ABS (Anti-lock Brake Systems) are also an issue with regards to current legislation. If a vehicle is fitted with ABS, the system might only become functional at speeds of OVER 25Km/hg. Therefore NO Roller Test will EVER detect any faults or inefficiencies in these systems.

Thus, a vehicle could be tested and returned to service as “Fit to operate” with a faulty system since the current testing procedures are inadequate for testing these modern systems.

Equally, NO Brake Roller Test can predict, consider or measure the likely failure of a single wheel ahead of other wheels (where newer/better components are installed) as a function of stress-induced thermodynamics.

This being said, the excessive use of brakes, as opposed to engine braking (as required by law) will result in a cascade failure, explained as follows:

  1. The driver fails to stop and engage the lowest gear.
  2. The driver proceeds down a hill at a speed in excess of what would enable him to use the lowest gear.
  3. The driver uses wheel braking (foot brake) the way one would in a light motor vehicle.
  4. Due to the size and mass of the vehicle, the wheels where the oldest/most worn brake drums or brake linings are or where the slack adjuster-to-pushrod angle is the furthest from 90 degrees would heat up the most, first.
  5. That wheel overheats, causing the brake drum to expand and reduce friction (expansion pressure reduces) or the linings to “glaze” (become harder and reduce friction ability) and thus that one wheel becomes less effective in terms of braking. In the case of a commercial vehicle, this could be a 15% reduction in braking efficiency.
  6. Now more force is required (at other wheels) to slow down the vehicle, resulting in more heat and greater thermodynamics, so the next wheel brake system starts to fail in the same way.
  7. By the time two wheels are braking less efficiently and this dynamics cascade to other wheels (carrying all the braking force) the driver would already lose control and he will be left with the impression that the brakes have “failed.”
  8. While this would – in technical terms – be deemed “brake failure” it is NOT a function of POOR MAINTENANCE or improvised repair. Numerous occurrences of this kind would also wear brake linings quicker and could render a vehicle “unroadworthy” within only a few of these incidents.

In this matter, we found NO EVIDENCE of ANY improvised repairs, abuse, old components, failed components (other than brake linings, as would be expected), damaged pipes, lines, hoses or connections and no evidence of cratering or radial/lateral cracking of drums.

Apart from the condition of the (overheated) brake linings and the discolouration of drums, we found no evidence of any failure or poor maintenance that was immediately visible.

This having been said, we are also aware that the SAPS and RTMC investigators and DOT-appointed examiners worked on the vehicle involved in this collision. Their examination can be deemed a destructive process since they contaminated the condition of the brake system by removing components.

Since we are not yet in possession of their findings, since we do not know what processes they used to examine the vehicle, whether they took any measurements or recordings, took any photographs or tested dynamically, we cannot comment on their findings at this stage.

We can report, however, that our absence at this stage would or could have prejudiced Mr Govender since we cannot attest to the validity of their findings or the mechanisms used to evaluate and/or test the brake system. Once we have their reports, we would be able to comment further.

Equally, we examined and conducted a Forensic Technical Audit on all the vehicles available to us (32 units) and we found NO evidence of any improvised repairs, broken components, damaged hoses, etc. On all accounts, we can confirm that the brake systems on all the vehicles displayed signs of regular maintenance and attention.

  1. Environmental Factors

One of the elements we feel needs to be addressed under this heading is the volume of traffic that was present on the M13 on the evening of the collision.

It is our instructions that Sanele might have opted to take the exit on account of the presence of a queue of vehicles (back-log of traffic) on the M13.

We are still in the process of attempting to secure footage from other CCTV camera systems at various locations on the M13 and for feedback on traffic congestion reports on social media.

Once we have this information in hand, we would be better served to comment on this. We are not aware, however, of any collision between the involved Truck and vehicles on the M13, where it came to rest eventually.

We would add that – if there was a backlog of traffic, as claimed – the truck would have collided with vehicles where they were on the M13 since the truck came to rest on the Left Lane of the M13, further down the road, after the collision.

  1. Anomalous Factors

In this matter, there are numerous anomalous factors. Factors that would not impact directly on the collision but that could have affected the outcome.

While we will not address those right now since evidence received later might address those issues, we are aware of the following:

In terms of the responsibilities of a driver, you cannot cross over an intersection (even if your traffic light is green) without ensuring that it is safe to do so.

We are not aware why (if this is so) the drivers of the vehicles that were stationary at the intersection chose to proceed over the intersection even with the “truck careering down on them.”

  1. Evidence still required

In order for us to produce our final report, we would still require the following:

  1. Copies of any all photographs or video recording (in original format/size) taken at the scene of the collision.
  2. Copies of all evidence collected by the SAPS and/or the RTMC investigator.
  3. Copies of any/all statements and versions on record.
  4. Copies of the findings of the SAPS Mechanical Examiners, outlining their methods used, conclusions and supporting evidence.
  5. Copies of any other expert reports/findings.
  6. Copies of transcripts of any/all testimonies in court.

We would also probably need to be present when state experts testify to assist with cross-examination and evaluation of their findings and evidence.

  1. Preliminary Cause of the collision

While a lot of speculation has been distributed by the media, we would be comfortable to report that we believe that the collision was caused or that it evolved as follows:

According to the tracker report (speed analysis), we found that Sanele approached a Compulsory Stop (Engage Lowest Gear) at 34 Km/h. At this stage, he would have been going up a hill – hence the lower speed.

After this, he immediately accelerated to 50 Km/h, indicating acceleration and NOT stopping/slowing down, as required and most certainly confirming that he was NOT in the LOWEST GEAR at this time.

He then proceeded down Field’s hill at an average speed of between 55 and 60 Km/h. This is the posted speed limit for vehicles of the category he was operating (60Km/h). So he was NOT “speeding” at this time.

As he headed down the hill, there was an increase in the speed limit to 80 Km/h. At this stage, he accelerated to between 74 Km/h and 88 Km/h.

This is (technically) also not “speeding” but we do not agree that this speed limit is adequate or safe since there is still a down-hill from here and since this collision clearly illustrates the error in this traffic control measure.

The vehicle seems, from the tracker report, to be well under control (accelerating and decelerating in response to road engineering – to turns, etc) until shortly before the exit taken by Sanele for whatever reason.

In itself, this is NOT an indication of speeding, but it is likely that he had been driving on his “brakes” instead of using the engine gearbox to control speed, per the Mechanical Factors discussion.

Our examination of the vehicle revealed that the gearbox was in “5th high gear” when the collision occurred. This is directly compatible with the speeds recorded. At lower gears, he would have been incapable of reaching these speeds.

This – along with the speed analysis indicates that Sanele was NOT making use of engine gears (primarily) to control the speed of his vehicle.

According to our analysis, things “went wrong” approximately 500m before the scene of the collision, where he accelerated to over 85Km/h and never recovered.

All indications are that Sanele tried to control (limit) the speed of the vehicle (loaded to 56 tons) on foot brake application alone. With commercial vehicles, lower gears cannot be selected while the differential between Engine and Drive Shaft Speeds are too great.

A highly skilled driver with the resolve of a fighter pilot might then actually know to accelerate the engine (to reduce the RPM differential) and might (theoretically) be able to “force the gears,” but this is highly unlikely to work on some kinds of vehicle.

But this is unlikely to have been possible under the veil of emotion and goal fixation (slow down, brake harder) as Sanele would have experienced.

This would have resulted in over-heating of the friction surfaces, a decline in braking ability and a loss of control (over speed/deceleration), as he was now no longer in a position to select a lower gear and recover control.

It is our preliminary finding that the collision was caused by operator error, resulting in brake system failure (deterioration due to thermodynamics).

We can report that we did not see or find any evidence to suggest that the brake system was compromised prior to Sanele’s departure.

Any claims to this effect would be speculative and could be supported by forensic evidence.

In Memory of Theasen Pillay (1974-2021)

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