When drivers become passengers

People often complain about law enforcement.  With events like the Marikana Massacre, the Oscar Pistorius trial, the Inge Lotz murder, and the Nkandla scandal fresh in our memories, it’s easy to point fingers, to complain about” the system” and to become armchair prosecutors, judges and even executioners.  But these are all actual crimes. They involve guns, victims, and “murder”, and are more entertaining to follow.  

But what about loss of life in car crash cases?  How can 51 people die in a horrible bus tragedy in Zambia with no one hearing about it?  Why does Oscar shooting Reeva garner so much interest, yet when 10 people die in a car crash it’s nothing more than a short-lived flash in the local newspaper?

But wait, you say, there was television coverage when the Jub-Jub crash went to court!  There was coverage when Tolla van der Merwe died and when the Kloof Nek Bus tragedy happened (who even remembers that anymore?)

Yes, this is true, but can we honestly say that people had the opinions about these events?  As we quickly saw with the Field’s Hill crash, media coverage does happen, but only in certain cases, and only in response to relevance.  There was graphic footage from the Field’s Hill crash, for one thing.

The footage shows several vehicles waiting for a green light and then, as they start to take off, this “juggemaut of death” ploughs right through the intersection, killing too many people once again.  The ministers, the media, the public and even the Department of Transport jumped into knee-jerk reactions to “stop the carnage.” Then everything returned to normal, after a couple of weeks.

But what most people don’t realise is what happens behind the scenes in some of these cases.  While the armchair prosecutors, judges and executioners react to the carnage emotionally and express very strong opinions, some cases are not so easy to judge at all.  Because most crashes don’t get enough attention in the media (they are only “accidents” after all), Stan Bezuidenhout from IBF Investigations has kindly agreed to take us on a “journey of discovery“ in a case that involved 10 fatalities but never even make the paper.

As Stan unpacks the process followed in identifying the driver in this crash, the facts become as bizarre as fiction and the processes followed as interesting as an episode of CSI (South Africa).

In April 2008, two vehicles collided on Potsdam Road in Killarney Gardens area, Cape Town.  In this horrible crash on an essentially abandoned road at night, nine people died on the scene and a 10th later.  The vehicles involved were a Toyota minibus taxi and a Ford Sapphire Sedan.  “Aha!” you would exclaim, “There you have it! Another overloaded taxi and another case of the same old overloading issue!”

But you would be wrong.  Nine people died in the Ford Sapphire, and only one in the taxi, the driver, who died in hospital, later.  See – here are some facts about this case that we will use to set the stage for the reason why this article’s topic is “When drivers become passengers.”

The taxi was loaded. But only with five passengers.  That brings the total number of occupants in the taxi to six.  That’s not overloading.  Nothing spectacular here, right? “So, they all died,” you ask? Nope. Only the driver.  Later, in hospital.  The passengers all survived.  “So, wait…” you say, “Are you saying that NINE people died in the Ford Sapphire?  A 5-seater sedan?” Well, yes.  And this is where fact becomes stranger than fiction. 

From the information gathered during the investigation, we learned that the taxi and Sapphire were both coming to a local township.  The collision occurred at about 7pm on a Sunday night.  At this time of the night, the road is normally quiet.

There would be some traffic, but not enough to support good chances of this many occupants in two vehicles meeting with such misfortune.  One would also certainly be forgiven for jumping to the “armchair conclusion” that the taxi was overloaded – is this not the norm where two-digit numbers of occupants die in car crashes involving taxis?  But no – this case went from abnormal to challenging in a heartbeat.

Fast forward to the days after the collision and more interesting facts started to be revealed.  “For starters, the taxi was declared roadworthy, and a new roadworthy certificate was issued for it within two days of the collision:  while it was still in pieces, in our laboratory, being examined,” Stan confirms.

“While false license disks and roadworthy certificates being issued to un-roadworthy vehicles is not the strange in these times, this was a first.  It actually felt strange to stand and look at the mangled wreck and realise that the new roadworthy certificate was issued while the driver was still in critical condition in hospital and the vehicle stored and secured in our indoor laboratory. “Clearly, something was amiss.  But this is not where this article is headed.

As the investigation continued, Stan and his team started to put the puzzle pieces together.  Their job included the collection of physical evidence (damage, mechanical condition, road marks, failures, etc.) and the intelligence aspects.  They also collected the survivors’ versions of events.  The taxi passengers revealed very little.  The ones who were able to speak remembered nothing.  They were all sleeping when they heard a big bang… And then things became interesting.


Let’s get back to the occupants of the Ford Sapphire.  Now there is an interesting angle to explore.  In the interests of clarification, by looking at Principal Direction of Force (PDOF), impact angles and physical damage (crush measurements) and mechanical examination results, we determined that this was a Faked Right Syndrome Collision.  This is a South Africanism derived from the US “Faked Left Syndrome” but comes down to the same thing.

Faked Right Syndrome is when two vehicles approach one another and one vehicle veers or drifts over into the lane of the other.  Let’s call this the “wrong driver” and the other vehicle, approaching from the other side, the “right driver.”  Now, when the right driver sees the approaching wrong driver, and sees no escape, he decides to go onto the opposite side of the road.  In his mind, he’s thinking: “If you’re on my side and I go to your side, we’ll pass each other safely.” So, he “fakes right.”

As he does this, the wrong driver, realising his mistake (for whatever reason) also suddenly swerves back to his lane and the vehicle collides on the “wrong driver” side.  This makes the “right driver” look like the “wrong driver.”  Only a trained eye, careful analysis and awareness of this phenomenon and the methods used to determine it will reveal this secret fact – where no witnesses survive.

Be that as it may, the Sapphire was “wrong” in this case.  This means the driver of the Sapphire would face multiple charges of culpable homicide.  But there was only one survivor in the Sapphire: a 30-year-old man.  This man claimed he was not the driver; he was seated directly behind the driver.  So, since he is (fortunately) the only one to survive, who was ever going to prove him wrong, right? Here come the good bits….

In order for us to establish who was (really) driving, we started to look at each possible occupant – all the deceased parties from the Sapphire.  First, there were two dead children.  So, they’re too young to drive the vehicle.  That’s seven possible drivers left.  Then we started to look at the vehicle – specifically the driver’s position.  From our at-scene photography you could clearly see that someone had bled profusely in the position.  There was blood pooling all around the steering wheel and driver seat position.  There was also smearing on the steering wheel, meaning the person there (the driver) was conscious and moving around, touching the vehicle with bloody hands.  So, whoever was there did not die in the collision.  They moved around, touched themselves, and got their hands full of blood and moved around, touching the interior of the vehicle, leaving smear marks.

We also found brain matter on the left front passenger door cavity, on and around the A-pillar.  So, whoever was in this position must have suffered serious head injuries.  We quickly found the victim with injuries of this kind – there was only one.  So that leaves six occupants who could potentially be the culpable driver.

Next, we eliminated everyone with injuries what did not result in profuse bleeding.  When people die instantly, their hearts stop so there is no blood pressure to speak of, which reduces the amount of free bleeding observed.  Two of the occupants were elderly ladies.  They were both well into their sixties and seventies.  We eliminated them quickly since neither were likely to have been the driver and because they had no open wounds to their faces or heads.  That left four possible occupants that could have driven the vehicle.

There was also a younger lady, but she was only 16 and also did not have any open wounds that could have resulted in the kind of blood pooling observed, so she was al.so eliminated.  That left only three other possible occupants who could have been the driver.  All three male and in their early to mid-thirties.

Two died instantly and had no open injuries of any kind and literally almost no bleeding either.  The last was a man that survived.  The one referred to earlier.  But he explained that he was not the driver, so how could we determine, and prove in a court, that he was the driver.  Ah, but see…He made a vital mistake.  He agreed to an interview.

This man had obvious scars from facial injuries.  He still had some stitches on his head when we interviewed him.  He also had hand and arm injuries.  And he survived.  So-wherever he was sitting – there was likely to be blood.  Lots of it.  Face and head injuries typically result in free blood flow, as we all know. 

In the interview, he spent all his time explaining where he was seated (left front, remember); he claimed not to remember how the collision occurred, he couldn’t explain how he got out of the vehicle (he said he got out on his own) and he forgot a very important aspect of a proper forensic investigation:  Everyone is a witness.  We also interviewed paramedics, police officers and fire-fighters who were present at the scene.

When we interviewed the first responding paramedics, we quickly learnt that they had some trouble at the scene.  It seems that a man of about 30-something was found in the driver’s position when they arrived.  While they were trying to help this man, who was bleeding profusely from his face, they encountered resistance.  The man was combative (often also a sign of head trauma) but smelled of alcohol and was “bleeding profusely from his head and face.” So, the only person who could have been the driver of the vehicle was proven to be the sole survivor.

So, you see – there are ways and means to get the dead to talk and tell stories, exactly as “Duckie” of navy NCIS fame always claims.  In this case as many as eight dead occupants each shared their secrets in turn until they pointed their dead, cold and even severed fingers straight at the only survivor from the Sapphire.

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