I spent half of last week at the 2014 Australasian Road Safety Research, Policing and Education Conference, which is the annual gathering of those who think that road safety is kind of important. To give a comparative perspective, think of the numbers of people in Australia who will be killed or injured by climate change this year. The numbers aren’t quite in yet, of course, but my estimate for 2014 will be 0 killed and o seriously injured.
On the Australian roads? Well, the numbers aren’t in either, and there is always a little doubt and uncertainty about them anyway, for a variety of reasons. But a decent guess will be about 1,500 dead and maybe 34,000 injured. Want to try cost to the community? On the whole, the slight warming that has been experienced over the last half century seems to have a good thing, with increased food production and the greening of some arid areas. Deaths and injuries on the Australian roads, however, are estimated to cost many billions of dollars — $27 billion, according to the Australian government — more than the Australian defence budget.
Given all this, and given that the people who went to the Conference are the cream of those who try to work out what should be done about the issue, you’d expect serious coverage from the media, wouldn’t you. There wasn’t any: no TV, radio or press, as far as anyone could see. Well, you say, there’d be some political presence. Actually, no. The Conference was in Melbourne, and no one came from the Victorian Government or Opposition. The Governor-General was there, and handed out awards. But any of his Ministers? No, not one. No one from the Labor Opposition either. There aren’t any votes in road safety at the moment.
People in road safety are used to it. No one wants to know. We the electorate seem to expect that Death exacts a tax on those who use the roads. We call it the ‘road toll’, and while there is quick fury about what happens when another death occurs at what locals call a ‘black spot’, and governments duck for cover before promising quick action, we all know that nothing much will happen, and hope that the next tragedy does not involve us.
There’s some good news. Deaths are coming down, in absolute and relative terms. The roads used to kill 30 Australians per 100,00. That was 1970. Today the figure is around 6 per 100,000. Had the ratio remained at the 1970 level, then this year’s road deaths would total around 7,200 rather than 1,500. That’s better, surely. But each of the 1,500 deaths could have been prevented. What other event in Australia produces mortality statistics like this without real comment? If we were losing 1,500 soldiers a year in Afghanistan there would be political trouble every day. We will lose around 50 cyclists this year, and that statistic is likely to climb as more people adopt bicycles as their mode of transport. Did you think there would be so many?
More bad news: serious injury numbers are climbing. Part of it is a trade-off. People who once were found dead, or died on their to hospital, are now surviving. But some of them have a low future quality of life, with what we call ‘acquired brain injury’, or paraplegia, or other life-reducing conditions. The care of a young person injured like this is astonishingly expensive over his or her life. Hence the question that is the title of this essay. Those in the crashes aren’t asked that question; what happens to them is what happens.
Road safety is in every government’s too-hard basket. There is no political leadership in this domain, none at all. We are trying to employ what is called a ‘safe systems’ approach, but there never was a system. Cars appeared on roads, and in time displaced the horse and cart. Our roads grew longer and wider, and carry more vehicles. But there is no ‘system’ in this, let alone a safe one, and imposing one after the event is fraught with difficulties of every kind.
Speeds need to come down if pedestrians and cyclists are to survive. Every move to do this is beset with opposition. Cars that recognise one another, and adapt the car’s speed to the new condition, over-riding the driver’s intentions if that will prevent a crash, will be part of the future. But mandating the new technologies will be difficult. Governments could rule that no new car can be sold in Australia that does not meet the ANCAP 5-star rating. That would save some more lives. But no government will have the nerve to do it. Too much opposition. What are the battlers going to do if there are no cheap cars?
What can be done? In my mind, road safety needs to develop local constituencies in the manner of the groups that have arisen around medical conditions like SIDS, breast cancer, cerebral palsy and the like. Their role is to build community support for desired changes, like 40 kph speeds in shopping precincts, enlist the local politicians, and build networks. The most effective changes to the death rate have come from changes to regulation, like the introduction of seat-belts and random breath tests. Ultimately government has to act, but it won’t do that without strong community insistence, and even then it will be slow to respond.
It will take time to accomplish anything, but it has to start locally. In the meantime, drive with the realisation that every day four or five people will die on our roads, and that several hundred will be seriously injured. To avoid being a new statistic, expect that bad things can happen without much warning, drive a bit more slowly than the average, and keep cool. There is a lot of aggression out there, too.