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States of Shock

Victoria Queensland & WA road safety policies: disaster areas

At least three Australian states are failing to live up to their road regulators’ ‘steady as she goes, it’s all under control’ rhetoric.

Regional Western Australia’s road toll is out of control, with the state’s rural death toll is almost double that of metro areas.

Queensland’s full-year death toll has been fairly stagnant at around 320 annually since 2000 but is currently 40 deaths higher than at this time last year – a 12.5 per cent increase on the previous six years.

In Victoria, early October saw the state experience the worst weekend death toll in 18 months with 12 road users losing their lives in a single weekend.

In this climate of singular obsession with speed, and an ever-increasing crackdown on even minor speeding, what happens when road death rises? Regulators and police blame motorists. No investigation into the appropriateness of road safety policy or enforcement protocols is undertaken. When road death drops, however, regulators are keen to compliment themselves and their policies, and little if any praise is heaped upon drivers. How hypocritical is that?

Here are some typical media statements surrounding the above events.

Acting WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said: “we are very concerned about the continuing attitude and behaviour and conduct of road users”.

Queensland Police Minister Judy Spence said: “Queensland is having a very bad year on the roads. Police are out there in more numbers than ever before so people doing the wrong thing are more likely to get an infringement notice than ever before”. (Infringement notices save lives, obviously.)

In Victoria, Assistant Police Commissioner Ken Lay said: “We continually push the message about speed, fatigue and alcohol but some people continue to die on our roads”. (Mr Lay declined to comment about whether the condition of Victoria’s regional roads was a factor in the deaths.)

A Victorian-based advanced learner’s test and driving instructor named Mark sent this in by e-mail following Victoria’s hellish weekend:

“Saturday morning approximately 4.10am on the Eastern Freeway in Melbourne. Three young people are traveling home along a straight section of the freeway when their car leaves the road, proceeds up an embankment and crashes into a tree. Two die. Police report to the media that speed or the weather were the likely causes.

“That would be right wouldn’t it? Of course it would have nothing to do with drowsiness or fatigue – probably not distraction either – and definitely not drugs or alcohol. No, it would have to be speed.

“Right at this very moment as I’m typing this email, two families nearby are dealing with the loss of their son, their brother, their grandson…”

This single crash, and the response to it, is illustrative of a wider problem. In seeking to pigeon-hole crash causes for convenience, ‘speed’ and ‘weather’ are very easy boxes for police to tick. They are, however, far from the whole story. How about basic civil engineering? What is a tree that can kill you doing at the side of a major metropolitan freeway? We wouldn’t want to introduce that as a factor as it would be VicRoads’ responsibility. (Impacts into roadside obstacles in Victoria are responsible for about 30 per cent of road death, a fact swept conveniently under the rug.) Roadside obstacles in the potential impact zone on any road constitute a major engineering deficiency.

One factor that is the responsibility of travellers is the decision to drive at a time when one would normally asleep. It’s reasonable to assume the disorientation flowing from that decision could affect one’s car-control ability. Poor planning could be a major player in these extreme early-morning crashes – but the requirement to plan better will never come to light unless better, more impartial investigations are made. While road regulators link road safety messages to things as patently irrelevant as penis size (as the RTA does in NSW, discussed elsewhere here) how is the dissemination of meaningful messages to otherwise responsible motorists to be managed? Few, if any, column-centimetres are devoted to educating the driving public about the potential consequences of poor logistic planning. Don’t drive when you’re normally asleep is a very simple, easy-to-sell message.

Here’s another problem, an annoyingly socio-economic one: How old was the car in the crash? The people who died were young, and young people typically drive older than average cars – and in Australia that means older than about 11 years. If so, the car was more than a decade behind the eight-ball on safety technology. It almost certainly didn’t have electronic stability control, and easily may not have had airbags and a raft of other inbuilt structural protections. The former may have helped the driver avoid the crash altogether, and the latter would have helped make the impact more survivable. Rich people are not subject to as many risks as the poor, and the young are typically poor.

The complacency of road safety’s policy makers is beyond belief – and that’s also a factor in the state-by-state horror stories above. It’s also the first contributing factor to get swept under the rug.