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.