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What to do about the road toll

Did you know, during 2017, the rate of road deaths in Australia was the lowest for at least five years? But NSW was different. It was the highest road toll since 2010. A total of 392 people died compared to the high of 405 in 2010, 12 more than in 2016. Worse, the holiday road toll more than doubled from last year.

This happened in spite of the NSW government throwing $300 million at road safety in the 2017 budget. What is to be done?

Safe systems approach

Currently, Australia takes a “safe systems” approach to road safety based on the international model:

  • better road safety management
  • safer roads
  • safer vehicles
  • safer road users
  • better response to crashes.

The thinking behind this approach is very much individual responsibility for the vehicle you drive and the way you drive. Part of this strategy is to use punishment to force people to change their behaviour. But while this approach may work for a while, it does not seem to have a long lasting effect on the road toll.

Swedish approach

The Swedes are often held up as a shining example of how to do road safety properly. In 2013, for example, there was a record low of only 264 road deaths. How did they achieve this?

  • Swedes build roads for safety rather than speed or convenience
  • Low urban speed limits, pedestrian zones and barriers to separate cars from oncoming traffic and bicycles
  • “2+1” roads-each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking
  • Safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges and zebra stripes with flashing lights and speed bumps.

The Swedish approach appears to be based on “safer roads”. At a recent road safety conference in New Zealand, Dr Matts Belin said serious crashes fell 90% in Sweden simply from installing median strips on its highways. But he also suggested there is something else powerful going on: different attitudes to drivers.

Sweden’s policy, Vision Zero, stops blaming only drivers and enforces shared responsibility among drivers, companies that design vehicles, roads and people operating the transport system. Where the usual approach to drink driving is individual enforcement and education, the Swedes see it as a design problem rather than a behaviour problem. As Dr Belin explains:

“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. We have to accommodate for all sectors of the population, from children to the elderly.”

More than driving

Even so, the NSW government announced another package of punishments for people who drug drive, including maximum penalties for drug drivers to prison for two years, fines of $5,500 and/or licence disqualification for up to five years. They will also start to include prescription drugs that are known to affect driving.

The traditional approach to the road toll is still to punish the driver without addressing the society problem. What makes people drive drugged/drunk/unregistered in the first place? Creating safer roads will make little difference to that.

It makes sense to start seeing driving as part of a much bigger system. Driving is affected by the emotional and financial pressures of life and work, politics, holidays, terrain, even weather. There is so much more to driving than just the way we drive. Or as Dr Belin says, “people aren’t perfect”.

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