No silver bullet for road safety

By August 25, 2012Politics, Road Safety

A day at the National Forum on Road Safety left me with my familiar feeling of frustration about road safety. According to the Parliamentary Secretary who has responsibility for the area, deaths on the road in Australia now amount to 180,000, which is getting on for double all the deaths in all the wars Australia has been engaged in! And road deaths are likely to surpass war deaths in my lifetime.

With no disrespect to Catherine King, the Parliamentary Secretary, there is something of a mismatch in government attention, given the platoon of Ministers who look after defence and former soldiers.

But there is no shortage of clever and committed people engaged in research and advocacy in the road safety domain, and it was my privilege to hear some of them during the day. One theme that kept coming through the discussions was the sheer pervasiveness of the car in modern Australian society, and the problems that arise if you lose access to one. The great majority of road trips are for essential activities – going to work, to school, to shop and to health services. I know of the issues that arise in one area through work we have done in the ACT, through the NRMA/ACT Road Safety Trust, on older drivers.

But it’s wider than that. In indigenous communities in the Northern Territory the motor vehicle is essential, but very many drivers do not have a licence – and some of them can’t read or write. If they drive into town they risk being apprehended for driving without a licence, and jailed. So the NT Government is sending teams of instructors into the remote communities to train and license the drivers. That’s thinking outside the box.

If you lose your licence the penalty can be astonishingly severe – loss of job, loss of house,  so on. Of course, that was not the intent of the sentence; you could call it collateral damage.

And some jurisdictions are loading the driver’s licence with penalties for activities that have nothing to do with poor driving, in the belief that the possession of the licence is so valuable that licence-holders will cease and desist their bad behaviour elsewhere to protect it.

The evidence suggests, however, that many if not most of those who lose their licences simply go on driving without one – as do recidivist drink-drivers. Some are caught several times. Their problem is that these unlicensed drivers are alcoholics, and our legal system cannot (yet) command that a driver without a licence undergo rehabilitation from the demon drink. As in the light-bulb story, the drunk has to want to change. There was a bit of a call for our society to step up to the mark, and confront the evil that is alcohol. I let that one go through to the keeper, but it’s a theme for another day.

By the end of the forum I had begun to wonder whether or not access to a car was not now one of the boundary conditions determining whether or not you live in poverty. Apparently one can buy a new car now for just under $10,000, which makes the improvement of our public transport systems even more difficult and lengthy. So many now live where frequent and efficient public transport hardly exists.

Road safety is a classic ‘wicked’ problem. There are no easy solutions. It is true that over time the probability of our being killed or seriously injured in a crash has been declining steadily, even though our population and stock of motor vehicles continue to grow, and I go on looking for improvements.

Yet, especially after a day at such a meeting, I feel that, just as the school system has been given the task of sorting out the results of bad parenting, the road safety system has been given the problem of sorting out some of the consequences of social problems like alcoholism, social injustice and deprivation.

It makes our job – those of us who work in road safety – even harder.


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Lauchlan says:

    There are solutions which we need to far more active in introducing. We have some very basic alcohol interlocks for cars and trucks, which are slowly being introduced for recidivist drivers only. If we took the same enthusiatic approach and investment to making change as we have for cigarettes we could see within 10 years every new car and truck with a sophisiticated device, perhaps linked to the new mobile phone which would not permit the car or truck to go. Companies are already doing this, I suspect they rather than Governments will set the agenda. That is not to say they couldn’t. The Swedish Government has set the following purchasing policy:
    Regulation (2009:1) Environmental and Road safety Purchasing demands on governments (state agencies, administrations) vehicles and travels
    Started as only environmental regulation, evolved with safety demands in 2009
    –Environmental and safety demands on cars bought, leased and used by governmental bodies
    –Alternative fuels, low CO2 emissions, low in particulates

    –Alcolock (at least 75% of the fleet)

    –Crash safety occupant protection (32,5 points Euro NCAP/5 stars)
    –Crash safety pedestrians (9,5 points Euro NCAP)
    –2 points whiplash protection (Euro NCAP)
    –Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
    –Seat belt reminder for driver and front seat passengers

    Licencing is more difficult as we struggle for a flexible policy which recgonises capability. Again technology can help and we can through a smart key system limit driving hours, car performance etc.
    Limited systems exist, companies again are looking to use them as outlined in the Corporate session on Friday.
    I guess it is a glass half full or half empty view…I see great potential if we can seize the opportunity to use technology to make a difference.
    After all as Barry Cohen so neatly said;

    “About ninety thousand Australians avoided
    death because governments decided not to try to change human behaviour and
    concentrated instead on letting the engineers and scientists redesign the
    “death traps” manufacturers were producing.”

    So while 180,000 have died, many many more would be dying today if we had continued on and not used technology to change the cars and to measure alcohol levels.
    Based on that success we should be increasing the rate of change with the newer and more intelligent technologies.
    Difficult maybe but more successes ahead !


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