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Addressing Road Safety Critical For Transition to More Sustainable Transport

The increase in Victoria’s road deaths in the year to 31 March by an additional 23 to 259, an increase of 9.7%, is a major concern and comes at significant cost to the community.

Safety has always been a critical issue for pedestrians and is the main reason why cycling numbers are so low in Australia. Whilst there has been a major improvement in road safety over recent decades (peaking in 1970 with 3798 deaths in Victoria alone), progress during the last decade has stagnated and roads remain deadly, particularly for the elderly, the handicapped such as those with impaired vision or hearing, the young, pedestrians and cyclists. The increase in Victoria’s road deaths in the year to 31 March  by an additional 23 to 259, an increase of 9.7%, is a major concern and comes at significant cost to the community. 

In a summary report by the Australian Automobile Association (AAA) in 2017 it was estimated that the cost of road trauma nation wide for the 2015 calendar year was $29.7 billion, the economic cost of each road fatality was $4.34 million and the cost per hospitalisation caused by road injury was $239,000. These figures probably are an understatement, particularly in cases of trauma that result in life long pain and suffering.  Despite substantial reductions since 1970 road trauma remains a major cost to society. Further, the complex nature of accident protection is such that it requires constant vigilance to address changes in the transport environment and emerging threats to road safety, and continual maintenance and development of strategies and programs to keep these in check. It also requires a culture of continual improvement to reduce it. Without this there is a risk that the incidence and cost of road trauma can easily grow again. In this respect it is important to understand the history.

The situation in the 1970’s had become so bad that it demanded fundamental system change but there were no magic fix solutions. It required a multi facetted approach to change driver behaviour, improve vehicle and road infrastructure design, policing and public education. The measures included vehicle safety design enhancements (crumple design etc, introduction of seat belts), safety helmets for cyclists and motor cyclists, initiatives against drink driving, improved enforcement technology, improved roads, and the introduction of public safety campaigns. But probably the most important factor was a  change in mindset at a political and institutional level. Where as today there exists a high degree of awareness of road safety, in the days of an emerging new technology in the transport industry safety matters had not been a consideration. The change in mindset was reflected by the establishment of the Transport Accident Commission in 1987 which had the reduction of the incidence and cost of road accidents as one of its primary objectives, and emulation of the Swedish model “Vision Zero” as its ultimate goal.  This approach was supported by the Monash Accident Research Centre and quickly enabled Victoria to become the leading State in Australia for road safety.

But gains in this area require continuing political support and can be quickly undermined by complacency and inappropriate government policy.  This occurred during the term of the Kennett government when the emphasis on road safety declined and speed limits were lifted on many main roads. Unsurprisingly the trend in road trauma quickly reversed. There is concern that a similar situation is occurring today, and that this is being driven by economic pressures and changing government philosophies and priorities.

Prevention strategies of any kind invariably produce far better outcomes than those that focus on the “cure”. This certainly applies to road trauma. Public health and safety campaigns, community education, effective policing and infrastructure improvements all play a critical role in reducing road accidents, but these are not always vote winners and are easily cut, particularly during times of economic hardship – a situation that is becoming increasingly apparent today.

Government city planning and economic development strategies are not helping either. Both promote continuing expansion of Melbourne and regional cities which in turn creates the need for more car-based travel over longer distances and at greater speed. All of these create the potential for more accidents and more serious accidents. This concern is supported by the fact that deaths from motor accidents are over represented in rural areas by a large factor where higher travel speeds over longer distances dominate. The risk of dying on country roads in 2017 was five times greater than Melbourne. In that year road deaths in rural Victoria (109) outnumbered deaths in Melbourne (103). This is one of a number of indicators that demonstrate that strategies to promote economic growth in Melbourne come at a high cost.  

The need to lower speeds in suburban streets has been recognised for a long time. A 50 kph default speed limit was introduced in built up areas in Victoria in January 2001 but there has been pressure to reduce this further to 40 and ultimately 30kph, particularly for suburban streets. Paris has followed the example of a growing number of French and other European cities and towns by introducing a 30kph for the entire city with the exclusion of a small number of main roads that connect Paris to other cities.  Whilst the principal aim of this strategy was to reduce vehicle emissions by getting people out of their cars and use public transport, walking or cycling or travel less it will deliver a significant reduction in road trauma. 

Governments should also promote safer modes of travel such as public transport for more trips instead of the motor car and encourage people to travel less and at lower speeds as part of its safety campaign. This would complement environmental strategies designed to reduce greenhouse emissions. 

There is also a need to provide greater protection for vulnerable road users; pedestrians and cyclists. Cyclists are 34 more times likely to be injured than the occupant of a motor car and 4.5 times more likely to die. Safety concerns are also being raised about the risk quiet cars, particularly EV’s pose for vision or hearing impaired pedestrians. There are many ways in which roads can be made safer for this cohort, many at very little cost, but despite the obvious benefits, progress to-date has been slow and inadequate.

The TAC is well abreast of all the above but its programs need government funding supported by a mindset and priorities that Vision Zero is the only acceptable target, rejecting any view that death on our roads is an inevitable consequence of economic development. Any budget cuts to road safety will compromise these objectives and be a false economy. Government must also reflect road safety goals in strategies for other portfolios, not just transport but also environment, public health, city planning and development and be a lever that helps provide a transition to a more sustainable future. 

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