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Road safety strategy looks broken

For the first time since 2011, all states and territories in Australia will miss their road safety target. The National Road Safety Strategy aims to reduce by 30% annual deaths and serious injuries from road crashes by 2020. A recent inquiry tried to pinpoint why the strategy is broken and what to do about it.

What is going wrong

During 2017-18 there were 1,222 deaths on Australian roads, far more in regional or remote areas than in cities. Overall, the biggest rise in deaths was among cyclists, up 80% from 25 to 45. This was in spite of little change in the number of people cycling but more people registered to drive cars.

In fact, your chances of dying on the roads are still considerably lower than dying of cancer, stroke or heart attack:

  Annual deaths Per day
Road 1,222 3
Heart attack 8,011 22
Stroke 10,869 30
Cancer 44,000 121

Did you know Australia’s population, now 25 million, increases by one person every 86 seconds?

Most immigrants settle in the big cities of Melbourne and Sydney and a tiny 6.5% go to regional areas. Given the increase in population, you might expect a small increase in deaths on the road. But the figures are still trending down even if they don’t yet meet the strategy target.

One way to account rising population is to look at the rate of people dying per 100,000 population. In 2011 when the NRSS began, the rate was 6.6 per 100,000. The current rate is 5.1 deaths per 100,000 (though it fell to a low of 4.8 in March 2015).

This means the rate of 5.1 per 100,000 is 22.7% lower than it was in 2011. This falls short of the ambitious 30% target but is nevertheless an improvement. Not only that, it masks the difference between the current city rate of 2.6% and the regional rate of 12.1% per 100,000.

Perhaps the road safety strategy, rather than being broken, is not working in the country.

Disorganised approach

Australia appears to have a rather uncoordinated and disorganised approach to measuring road safety.

First, there is currently no nationally agreed measure of serious injuries on the road. The inquiry meekly states annual hospitalisations “appear to have been increasing”.

Second, the inquiry says data about mobile phone use in crashes are “incomplete”. In fact, there are no current data on crashes caused by mobile phones, only general research studies about their role in distraction. There may well be “scope to improve data collection”.

Third, fatigue is four times more likely to be involved than drugs or alcohol. It is difficult to measure – Victoria estimates 20%, Queensland says 20-30% of crashes involve fatigue. But how can the authorities be sure? Worse, how can they force people to sleep?

Safe system

The strategy inquiry lists nine actions to address these problems. They are essentially structural and legal – new speed limits, better infrastructure, safer vehicles with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), drug testing, speed cameras, and new licensing and fatigue laws. It argues, although many crashes are mostly human error, their severity is most affected by the infrastructure and environment.

However, in the safe system, it’s much easier to address “safe roads”, “safe vehicles” and “safe speeds” than “safe people”.

Safe people?

Interestingly, when asked, many drivers readily acknowledge they are not safe. In fact, they largely blame themselves or others.

Australian Road Safety Foundation (ARSF) found a huge 91% of Australian drivers believe most road crashes are caused by someone’s choice:

  • 80% say preventing road deaths is everyone’s personal responsibility, almost double those who think it’s up to government or police
  • 50% said they were fed up with drivers breaking the law and want to see them off the road.

On the other hand, half of surveyed drivers admitted to speeding, 40% drive fatigued and 10% said they drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. So presumably they are not the same ones fed up with drivers breaking the law.

It begs the question whether we drive unsafely on purpose, or whether it is just habit.

A British study of 2,000 car owners found, only 3 months after passing their driving tests, they had adopted bad habits. It took a mere 5 months before they would run a red light or make an illegal U-turn. In fact, a tenth said they had already had an accident because they didn’t follow the road rules!

People aren’t perfect

Perhaps Sweden’s policy, Vision Zero, is not so far from the mark. It recognises people aren’t perfect.

“Most countries focus on creating the perfect human, but we think differently – we have created a system for the humans because people aren’t perfect.” The policy enforces shared responsibility among drivers, companies that design vehicles, and roads.

The question is whether the road safety strategy in Australia does enough to address “safe people”. We are not talking about introducing another swag of driving penalties. Instead, what are we doing to get the best out of human nature on the roads?

For example, is it worth recognising when the stats are improving? And is it time to do more to recognise good driving? What do you think?

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