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Towards Zero: The Dream And Why It Won’t Work.

Every government around the world will tell you that they would love to see a zero road death toll. Anyone that has lost a friend or family member in a car crash will more than likely tell you the same thing. In early 2017, the state government of New South Wales launched a new safety on roads initiative called Towards Zero. Here’s a quote from the website: “Initiatives to ensure safer roads, speeds, people and vehicles need to be implemented together so the road system not only keeps us moving, but safe and protected.”

The idea is admirable. Make our roads safer so that no one will die. Great idea. A wonderful idea, especially when you read: “People are human and sometimes make mistakes – a simple mistake shouldn’t cost anyone their life.” and “Roads, roadsides and vehicles need to be designed to minimise crashes or reduce forces if a crash happens.”

Leaving aside the lack of an Oxford comma in quite a few parts of the website, the idea of a zero road toll, using the two of the three opening statements listed, really appeal and make it look that it isn’t as far fetched as their dream would seem to be. But it’s here where this dream is seen as fanciful and unrealistic: “Road safety is a shared responsibility – everyone needs to make safe decisions on and around the road to prioritise safety.”

Governments in Australia have a huge focus on road safety and quite rightly. However that focus is narrow, myopic, and singular. Each and every government will sit down with you and with a look of utter sincerity tell you that speed kills. They’ll also shake your hand slowly and tell you that the only cause of fatal crashes on our roads is speeding. Then they’ll burp and remind you of fatigue being a cause also. Fair call there.

Let’s look at the numbers as prepared by the NSW Bureau of Statistics and provided to the NSW Transport Department. In the twelve month period that ended on March 31st, 2017, there were 373 fatalities in NSW. That’s 373 people per 100,000 people of the population. Per 10000 vehicles it’s just 0.7. The rate per one hundred million vehicle kilometres? 0.5. Yes. 0.5 per one hundred million vehicle kilometres travelled.

Using the month of March (as the most recent month completed) over the last decade, it sees an average of 28 fatalities per month. That’s just shy of one per day. From a population of over five million alone in Sydney. In March of 2017, 15 of the 29 deaths were driver related. That’s down three from 2016. It’s also eleven down from the previous year’s three months ending March and the third lowest January to March total since 1945.

The ages of those killed tell a startling story. 5 drivers were between the ages of 17 and 20, whilst 17 were between 30 and 59. Read that again: 17 drivers died that were between the ages of 30 and 59. This is the age group range that, theoretically, SHOULD be the safer driver’s age range. Somewhat unsurprisingly, 22 of the 29 were male. Locations varied also; seven were in the area classified as Sydney, and six in the southern region. The Hunter Valley and Western regions shared five apiece. Given the population of NSW at the end of September 2016 was an estimated 7,757,800, the 22 deaths outside of Sydney in March of 2017 represent a disproportionate amount.

Strikingly, NONE of the 22 were on a road classified as a freeway. 9 were on state highways whilst 11 were on roads classified as Main/Secondary/Tourist with a further 9 on roads classified as…unclassified. In areas classified as metropolitan areas, only Sydney saw a number of fatalities, compared to Wollongong and Newcastle. But virtually half, 14, were seen as being listed under “Country, non urban, greater than 80 kilometres per hour”. It’s here a cynic might claim that speed kills…

Of those 29, 17 were in cars. That’s four less than March 2016. Five were light trucks. 13 less than the same time last year. Even fatalities for heavy truck crashes were down, 11 less than before. Now for some good news. Although the NSW government would have us believe that we’re in a real spot of bother when it comes to fatalities, it’s a consistent DOWNWARD trend since 1989, where somewhere in the order of 1000 people lost their lives. There’s been a couple of gradual rises and a spike or two, noticeably in 2006 and 2010, but the trend is most definitely on the way down.

NOW: some better news in the battle against some things we’re told are the causes of fatal crashes. Please note those two words: fatal crashes. A recent analysis of 340 serious casualty crashes in Victoria and NSW between 2000 and 2011, using data gleaned from forensic examination of crash scenes and anonymous interviews with drivers has found that in 0.9 per cent of crashes the driver was using a mobile phone.  0.9%. As the information source says: “If using mobile phones is significantly dangerous then we could expect to see a dramatic increase in traffic accidents in the last decade.  In fact, the reverse is true. “Between 1997 and 2011 seven fatalities were recorded in which using a hand-held mobile phone was a possible contributing factor. However, it is not known to what extent other factors such as alcohol, speed and fatigue also contributed to these fatal crashes.

The study from the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) found that intoxicated drivers caused 13.5 per cent of crashes, drivers falling asleep resulted in 11.8 per cent of crashes and 3.2 per cent of crashes were caused by passenger interactions. Here’s a list of causes:

13.5% Intoxication
11.8% Fell asleep
10.9% Fatigued
3.2% Failed to look
3.2% Passenger interaction
2.6% Felt ill
2.6% Blacked out
1.8% Feeling stressed
1.5% Looked but failed to see
1.4% Animal or insect in vehicle
0.9%  Using a mobile phone
0.9% Changing CD/cassette/radio
0.9% Adjusting vehicle systems
0.9% Looking at vehicle systems
0.3% Searching for object

Note something? Not one mention of speeding aka excess velocity for the posted limit. That’s why you’ll hear the pithy line of “almost 40% of fatal crashes had speed as a factor” because the car was in motion at the time. The reverse is: “over 60% of fatal crashes DIDN’T have speed as a factor.” What is hard to find is the posted limit in which this excess speed factor was a factor.

Another factor is, which to Toward’s Zero’s credit, they address, is road design, which includes traffic light timing. In NSW there’s a peculiar leaning towards having traffic coming off a freeway being given a green light only to be heading towards a red light, which aids traffic flow not at all. In peak periods some roads that badly need more green light time see drivers, utterly frustrated with five seconds, break the law and run the red light in oreder to save minutes of waiting. Then there’s the adsurbity of Sydney’s freeway designs, where two major inbound lanes merge within just a couple of hundred metres which causes gridlock every morning and afternoon.

However, there is one factor that is a constant, a factor that will always be part of the reason “Towards Zero” is doomed to fail. Some call it the OVI, the Organic Vehicle Interface. Others call it the nut holding the wheel. Quite  a few call it “that f**king useless idiot”. It’s the driver that believes they have a sovereign right to not indicate, to tail gate, to drive at night or in rain without headlights on, to run red lights (such as: Ran red light for food), to not stop safely for amber lights, to have trailers not connected properly, to not reach highway and freeway merge speeds, to not react at the appropriate speed when given a green light, to drive at the wrong speed in a lane other than the left, to listen to headphones whilst in a vehicle with a perfectly serviceable audio system, to comb their hair or read a book or eat breakfast or just act, as James May might say, like a complete cock.

The bottom line is this: we’ve been fed a diet of lies, obfuscation, misdirection, when it comes to why people die on our roads. We’re effectively told that a blanket reason for fatal crashes is excess speed. What I haven’t included here, simply, is the sheer outright cost to the community when it comes to crashes that aren’t fatal. The costs of hospitalisation, insurance, road and property repairs, but is a fair bet that they’ll be of huge numbers and, again, not strictly speed related. Driver training seems, nowadays, to not impart anything more than “Hop in, turn on, select D, go” and that also is a reason why we won’t see a zero road toll. No engagement in driving means real awareness of what it means to be a DRIVER will always not be a part of the driving experience. And in a nutshell that’s why Towards Zero will fail.

Information sourced from http://www.keepyoureyesontheroad.org.au, http://www.towardszero.nsw.gov.au/, http://roadsafety.transport.nsw.gov.au/downloads/dynamic/nsw-road-toll-monthly.pdf

Opinion is that of the author and not neccessarily that of the site owner.

4 comments

  1. Terry Young says:

    You are correct imo

    April 26th, 2017 at 12:53 pm

  2. Jason says:

    So why isn’t our government embracing Autonomous Vehicles, and Electric Vehicles that these autonomous systems seem to be based around? There is strong evidence to suggest that autonomy will drastically reduce all forms of vehicle incidents. And electrification has multiple benefits, not least is the health risks associated with internal combustion engines.
    Supporting electrification will not only improve this aspect of serious and critical harm, but improve the health of all citizens, drastically remove the reliance on foreign oil and provide opportunities for new industries. If they were really serious about the road toll, and public health in general, then there would surely be initiatives in electrification and adoption of autonomous vehicle technologies.

    April 26th, 2017 at 2:12 pm

  3. Charles says:

    This is a great article. If speed killed, Germany, with unlimited Autobahn speeds would have a much higher accident rate than Australia. It doesn’t, it is about 40% lower. The obsession with the “speed kills” message means that we aren’t doing enough to correct the factors that really are killing people.

    May 2nd, 2017 at 2:12 pm

  4. Nick says:

    Your article is misleading. Those stats were pulled from 340 cases out of a SAMPLE size of 856. Additionally the study was specifically looking for Driver Inattention where 1 or more people were taken to hospital.

    Driver fatality age ranges… 17-20 vs 30-59, to claim that 30-59 are actually more accident prone, you would have to find the ratio of deaths to total number of drivers in those ages groups.

    I could go on and on, but the reality is speed is a compounding factor and it is the easiest to monitor.

    If the government really want to push towards zero, then you need to ask why we still have the ability to go beyond the speed limit, the ability to start a car while drunk why cars/trucks don’t go into a slow mode to force a rest after two hours of operation, all of these are possible with technology that has been around for a long time. While you are there you could also ask why we have not adopted driver education programs from other countries with lower road tolls, why is it so easy for repeat offended to get their license back.

    May 3rd, 2017 at 11:58 am