He qualified as a paramedic at age 16 in Zimbabwe and was dedicated to a life of caring for those in need medically – until someone puked on him.
This (un)fortunate event is what prompted Howard Dembovsky to become a police officer and many South Africans who have benefitted from his knowledge, gained at Justice Project South Africa, would probably like to buy the man a Bells.
While Dembovsky is considered one of the most prominent figures in road safety, this is not what he imagined for a teenager, pursuing a career as a paramedic. But after that puking incident and with the support of his father, who was a professional in law and accounting, he became a police officer. That was in the ’80s. He claims to have even worked in former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s household.
He explains how his interest in traffic and road safety matters was born.
“Part of our driving training in the police force was the high-speed pursuit course.
“We had to drive from Salisbury (now Harare) to Bulawayo at an average of 200km/h, while giving commentary on our observations.
“This was not usually about the weather and the birds, you had to comment on your observations on the road, any obstructions and perceived hazards. If you stopped talking for more than 10 seconds, you failed the test and had to turn back and go home.”
The training heightened his awareness, senses and ability to identify and react to hazards – and that was how he taught his sons to drive, years later. His life behind the wheel hasn’t been accident-free. In 1985, he failed to recognise a hazard and crashed into a station wagon, used as a taxi in Zimbabwe at the time.
“The station wagon was on the side of the road and its brake lights were not working, so it didn’t indicate. I was 30m away when it pulled off a U-turn in front of me and I bumped into it.
“Fortunately, there were no passengers in the wagon, but that was where I learnt the importance of a seat belt and how it saved lives!”
After being deployed in the anti-corruption unit and discovering things were not as expected, he decided to come to South Africa in 1987. He worked in sales and marketing before moving on to work as an IT security consultant for two major companies.
All was seemingly going well, until the Gauteng traffic police arrested him and set him on his current path.
“I was riding a motorcycle. I saw a car was changing lanes so I went on to the shoulder lane to avoid it. The cops arrested me.
“They were arresting bikers that day so they arrested me along with seven others.
“When they took me in, they trumped up the charges against me.
“That is when I saw there was something terribly wrong with the way traffic laws were enforced and how [police officers] conspired to give you a criminal record. I was having none of that.”
The charges were dropped after 12 court appearances.
“At one of the court appearances, the magistrate asked why there were eight separate cases and why the accused were not just brought forward together for sentencing, because that was easier.
“I’m not known to keep quiet, so I jumped up and said: ‘Your Worship, with the greatest of respect, you haven’t even asked me to plead yet and you’re talking about sentencing me? I suggest you recuse yourself from this matter.’ It was soon after that all the charges were withdrawn.”
He founded the Justice Project South Africa, a nonprofit company, in 2008 to help others who faced issues relating to South African traffic laws.
“It was originally designed to be a support group for people who suffered abuse at the hands of traffic cops, but it took over my life completely and very quickly.
“I was still working as an IT security consultant but [Justice Project South Africa] eventually ruined my business because I went from helping one to two people, to a flood of people who had similar kinds of problems.
“I’d learnt as much as I could about road safety regulations when I was still under those charges and there were people who considered me an expert on road traffic law enforcement.”
He said the current laws and the National Road Traffic Act were adequate, but the Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences (Aarto) Act was “an abomination and the work of the devil”.
According to him, it is unconstitutional and if the government implements it, he has a surprise or two waiting for them. He said some cases involved people whose lives were ruined by the resulting criminal record. Some could have been diverted, but once convicted, these people were unable to get jobs or receive travel visas.
He questioned how ruining a person’s life in that manner would solve the problem effectively.
“I am in a very difficult and precarious position, because I want to see law enforcement practiced properly, to have the desired effect. As a result, I need to challenge legislature which I find to be unconstitutional and unfair.
“This has brought me enemies in the [Road Traffic Management Corporation] and department of transport, which is unfortunate because we could work together, instead.
“Often times, NGOs suck up to these entities and that is a problem we have in South Africa. But if I see something that is not right, I am going to speak up about it.”