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Road safety: Much more than safety of roads Part 1

commuting safe roads

A huge report from the national Joint Select Committee on Road Safety has been released. It has hundreds of ideas about road safety in Australia and how it can be improved. greenslips.com.au has chosen a few interesting ideas. While there’s a lot more to road safety than safe roads, Part 1 is about roads.

Safe Roads

Safe roads are the responsibility of government. However, the three other aspects of its Safe System approach to road safety are personal decisions about what, when and how we drive. Safe Vehicles, Safe Speeds, and Safe Road Users depend on the choices each driver makes.

However, roads authorities can at least address the problem of unsafe roads. Many roads are poorly designed, lack safety treatments and do not protect vulnerable road users like pedestrians or cyclists. Rural roads, in particular, are often loose, potholed and have dangerous edges. Considering two thirds of deaths in Australia are on rural roads, creating safer rural roads seems to make sense.

One well established idea is “self-explaining” roads. These roads are designed so well the motorist knows immediately how they are expected to drive and what to expect. These roads are easy to:

  • Recognise – roads have similar road users, speeds and functions
  • Distinguish – different categories of roads look different from each other
  • Interpret – motorists know how to behave on that road without being told.

Self-explaining roads make life simpler for everyone. Each category of road has its own treatments to promote road safety. For example, a motorway is designed for fast moving so has fewer cross streets, which would create hazards at high speed. This means motorists do not expect to see traffic moving across the road in front of them.

Ultimately, governments are responsible for creating self-explaining, safe roads, but not how motorists use them.

Another interesting safe roads idea is known as “Movement and Place”.

Movement and Place

Like the Safe System approach to road safety, Movement and Place is an approach to planning roads. It recognises that a road has two main roles: it facilitates movement and/or becomes a destination in its own right (place).

This table shows how each type of road sits somewhere between movement and place:



Most movement Fast movement Equal movement Slow movement Least movement
Least place More place Equal place More place Most place
Motorways over long distances Corridors between regions and strategic centres Vibrant streets with different demands Local streets Places for people

For example, a motorway is designed to accelerate travel from one city to another with higher speed limits than a road through a village, where lots of pedestrians are shopping or going to cafes.

Looking at road safety through these five lenses, each approach needs to be different. The places for people need a lot more focus on protecting vulnerable road users and slowing traffic down. Vibrant streets must tread the line between protecting people on the street and helping vehicles get from A to B efficiently, for example, King St in Newtown.

Safe System and Movement and Place are concepts to guide roads and planning authorities. However, the idea of star ratings for safe roads may appeal to drivers.

Star ratings for safe roads

Most people are familiar with star ratings for fridges, services, or movies. They know five stars is better than two stars.

In 2006, Australian Road Assessment Program introduced the idea of star ratings for roads. Inspectors assess each road from video drivethroughs and assign star ratings based on major safety features and hazards. Some places in Europe already publish maps with star ratings on the roads.

Star ratings could be introduced in Australia to:

  • Improve accountability for road safety targets
  • Involve communities in road safety
  • Allow people to choose the safest, as well as quickest, route for travel.

It would be a mammoth task to gather information about the safety of all Australia’s roads. However, since 35% of travel occurs on roads that would be rated one or two stars, it would help channel funds to improve the safety of the network.

Naturally, the safety of any road also depends on speed limits.

Are speed limits too low?

Speed limits are set according to the nature and purpose of the road. However, there is much debate about how low these limits should go. Many experts are calling for 30 kmh in residential areas and high pedestrian areas of cities. They argue that trauma caused by colliding with a pedestrian at 30 kmh is much less than the same collision at 40 kmh.

One academic noted, even if the speed limit is 40 kmh, it does not necessarily mean a vehicle will collide with a pedestrian at that speed. The speed limit is low enough that the driver would see the pedestrian in time and at least slow down. She argues 40 kmh is a fair compromise between promoting pedestrian safety and efficient travel for motorists.

Even so, some motorists don’t understand the danger of travelling at high speeds. The impact of speeding could be described as the equivalent of jumping off the roof of a tall building and expecting to survive hitting the ground, in a vehicle rated 5 stars for safety. Perhaps more could be done to promote understanding.

Any discussion of speed limits inevitably leads to the use of speed cameras.

Average speed cameras

The topic of speed cameras is often divisive, separating those who think they reduce deaths and injuries and those who think they just raise revenue. This report discussed the use of average speed cameras. Currently in NSW, only heavy vehicles are subject to average speed cameras. Other states and territories already use or plan to use them for all vehicles.

Average speed cameras may be fairer than other speed cameras. This is because it penalises a driver only if she continues to drive too quickly, rather than just at one point. The Joint Committee recommended using average speed cameras for all types of vehicle across Australia. It suggested the government could even make roads funding contingent on using average speed cameras on that road.

Whether or not you agree with speed cameras of any kind, there are certainly plenty of ideas about roads. Next week, we will focus on other aspects of road safety that are not about safe roads.

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Corrina Baird

Writer and expert greenslips.com.au

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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