I have been chairing the NRMA/ACT Road Safety Trust for a long time now, and that role has changed my driving style. I try to be generous to others, courteous, patient, observant, knowledgeable about the conditions and the speed limit, and aware of my own deficiencies as a driver. It’s not easy, for me, or for anyone. My car is a means to an end, even though I enjoy driving. Remembering all the things I have to do to be an excellent and considerate driver is an effort. And I still make errors.
I have developed a language to discuss all this, too. We in the Trust never talk about ‘accidents’, only ‘crashes’. We don’t like references to ‘the road toll’, because it sounds as though there’s some kind of obligatory death tax that is levied on drivers, passengers, motor-cyclists and pedestrians. There isn’t. Every crash had a cause, and would not have occurred but for that cause. Even ‘road safety’ is a misnomer: it is the phrase we use to talk about road calamities. Real road safety would be the feeling of well-being you have when you drive, knowing that everyone else on the road is concerned to let you get to your destination without incident, while you have the same feeling for them.
All of this is simply a preface for a media moment yesterday in Bungendore, NSW that launched this year’s partnership between the local government councils centred on Queanbeyan, Braidwood and Bateman’s Bay, the ACT and NSW police, and the Trust, to try to reduce the propensity for crashes during the holiday season on King’s Highway, which runs from Queanbeyan to the coast. It is named after a Mr King, not after one of the English sovereigns, and it is a decent NSW country road that handles huge amounts of traffic during the holidays and at weekends. Since we have had a house at the coast for thirty years, it is a road I have driven hundreds of times. It is prone to landslides at the top of the Clyde Mountain, but otherwise it is just a road like many others: straight stretches, bends, crests and a 600-metre descent from the top of the Coastal Range to the sea. It is perfectly safe if you drive to the conditions.
It has a few kilometres of three-lane traffic, so if you find yourself in a queue (and at peak times the queue is likely to be 130 kilometres long) you need to be patient and considerate. In my experience the vast majority of drivers are so, for they recognise that there is nothing much they can do otherwise. But there will be one, or two, who makes a business of passing whenever he can do so. Since the queue is travelling at an average of 90 kph, the impatient ones rely on those ahead letting them in. And we do, but their impatience increases the propensity for disaster.
There are constant complaints about the road. ‘Aorta’ comes in for a lot of stick. ‘Aorta fix that road’. ‘Aorta make it four-lane right through to the coast!’ And so on. Though I like divided highways best of all, especially for the long runs, making four-lane roads is hugely expensive, and King’s Highway can’t be high on the priority list. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has made it clear that for him the Prince’s Highway north of Taree is his first priority, and I would agree. The coast north of Taree is much more populous and the traffic much thicker. King’s Highway is constantly being improved in little ways, and until it is a super highway, which will be after I am gone, we need to drive it with care, and make our speed appropriate to the conditions and the traffic.
A few years ago the Trust suggested to its ACT Minister that the ACT Government might co-operate with the NSW Government in building some divided stretches on both King’s Highway and the Monaro Highway between Canberra and Cooma, to avoid head-on crashes which are the most destructive of life. Our argument was that though the roads were in NSW, the bulk of the traffic came from the ACT — and it would show us as ‘willing’. Sadly, if understandably, the ACT Government said that this was a NSW problem.
So what will happen because of our partnership? Well, there will be a much greater police presence on the roads than normally, and we’ll have signs up asking drivers to take special care, and to be patient.
The trouble with road safety is that you can’t measure how effective you have been with any measure, except over the long haul, and even then it’s hard to isolate any particular measure. But we’ll do it again, as we have done it in the past. And hope. And wait.