National approach to the road toll needed

Proposals to double demerit points or increase fines for drivers who break the law in an attempt to reduce the road toll are too simplistic and just let governments off the hook.

Driver behaviour is a critical element in road trauma, but it’s too easy for governments to always blame drivers and launch advertising campaigns or police blitzes with little regard for improving the safety of the road network and the quality of cars people drive.

The research is clear safer drivers, in safer cars, on safer roads will save lives and reduce serious injuries.

It’s time for a focused national approach and practical action from all levels of government to reduce the toll.

The National Road Strategy 2011-2020 made the point succinctly:

“Over the past several decades, Australia has earned an international reputation as a model country in many areas of road safety intervention.

“But the overall performance in recent times has not kept pace with the achievements of other developed countries, and there is a need for a major shift in thinking by governments and the community.”

Governments need to stop thinking it’s all about the drivers and the community needs to stop accepting the inevitability of the road toll.

From an economic perspective, road trauma costs Australia somewhere in the order of $30 billion per year.

But the social impact of about 1200 lost lives and countless injuries is enormous.

Everyone has been touched by the road toll.

It is a national public health disaster, but we seem content to muddle along with each state coming up with its own strategies on driver education, enforcement, advertising campaigns and road construction priorities.

We can’t even agree on the best graduated licensing system, with individual states adopting individual approaches to training L-platers and even the age at which licences become available.

States also have different regimes for alcohol and drug testing, speed limits, use of speed cameras and the demerit point system.

Surely we can bring together the best available research and agree to harmonise our licensing and enforcement systems to optimise road safety across state borders?

But that doesn’t even touch two of the other key issues in road safety improving the safety of the road network and getting drivers into safer cars.

New technology can help drivers to avoid crashes or minimise the severity of injury if an accident occurs.

However, the average age of the Australian vehicle fleet of 10 years means it takes several years for the benefits of safety innovations to flow through to the second hand market, and some safety features available overseas are slow to arrive in this country.

The Federal Government should ban the importation of vehicles which don’t meet specified safety standards under the ANCAP star rating system to improve the quality of vehicles on our roads.

But we will need incentives to get drivers into safer cars at a faster rate and increased enforcement of roadworthiness standards.

A safer car may turn a potentially serious injury into a minor one and save the health budget billions in follow-up treatment, so why shouldn’t governments consider innovative ways to subsidise the purchase of safer vehicles, particularly for young drivers?

The great irony is that young drivers face the highest risk of accident in their early years of driving, which usually coincides with them driving the worst cars of their lives.

The banking and insurance sectors should be working with governments to develop lower cost loan schemes and get our young people driving the safest cars possible.

And that leaves us with the road and transport network itself.

Our aim must be to prevent road crashes and if they still occur, to minimise their consequences and extent of injury for all involved.

Duplication of major highways, installation of road safety barriers, widening road shoulders, better lighting, tactile line marking, improved signage and increasing the number of rest areas are all strategies currently being rolled out through various local, state and federal initiatives.

But again, there is a lack of consistency across state borders and insufficient resources to improve the safety of the road network.

Supporting rail freight upgrades to take some of the transport task off our roads, improving public transport links and providing dedicated cycling lanes also have a role to play.

It is the right time for a national debate about reducing road trauma, but we should be demanding more from all levels of government and focusing on building a safe system, not just blaming drivers for the road toll.