774 ABC Melbourne—Interview with Jon Faine

Interview

DCI020/2016

05 December 2016

Subjects: Roundtable meeting in Melbourne to discuss road safety solutions.

Jon Faine: There's a roundtable about road safety being convened in Melbourne this morning; federal and state authorities, experts, police officers, all sorts of people joining in. Darren Chester is the Federal Government's Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and therefore has a vital role to play at this roundtable. Darren Chester, good morning to you.

Darren Chester: Good morning Jon.

Jon Faine: What's to be achieved? What's on the agenda?

Darren Chester: Well I'd hesitate to call it a crisis meeting, but we are on track for our worst year in the past five years in terms of road fatalities and serious injuries across Australia, and here in Victoria alone we've seen an increase year on year, this year in the order of about 14 per cent, so we've had a terrible year in many parts of Australia, and it's important that we get the police commissioners involved, who obviously have a very important role to play, and make sure that exchange of ideas is going on, find out what's working in different jurisdictions and see if we can figure out exactly what's causing this spike we've seen over the last couple of year, but particularly the spike we're seeing in regional areas as well. So it's a troubling time in terms of road trauma across the nation, and Victoria and New South Wales have perhaps performed the worst in the past 12 months.

Jon Faine: Do you really expect that there are ideas that are completely fresh and new, or is it just a matter of—well, given that there's endless reports on this already, it's a matter of just refining and fine tuning what's already out there?

Darren Chester: I think that's fair question, Jon. I'm not expecting a revolution out of one meeting, but we have had discussions this year with our transport ministers, and it was decided at that meeting that it would be a good idea to get the police commissioners together by themselves as well. The information we're getting back in our latest lot of research is around the driver behaviour traits that we're concerned about. Illicit drug use is increasing, speed is still playing a major factor, driver distraction, alcohol and fatigue, so all the things that we're well aware of as issues, but we need to make sure we're exchanging information across our state borders to see if there's other areas which are doing it better, are there enforcement measures that are working better, are there education information campaigns that work better in different areas compared to other parts of the country? The bottom line is, Jon, we've had a spike in these last couple of years which is deeply concerning, and if we go on our current trend, there'll be another 70 Australians who will be killed on our roads before Christmas. So I think it's an important meeting for us to have, and …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] Well the population grows, people are more mobile, people are working in different ways and much more … they're much more on the road. It's probably quite predictable, if not expected that the number of people involved in collisions—as the number of people on the roads increases, the number of people in collisions will increase.

Darren Chester: Except, Jon, for the fact that over the past 40 years, as population has increased, and as you described, there's more people using roads, over the past 40 years our … we've been very successful at reducing road trauma year on year. It's only been the last two or three years we've started to see this spike upwards again, and this current trend is alarming. We've had a lot of investment in better roads, which we know are part of the equation. If we can get duplicated highways and more road safety barriers in place, a more forgiving road environment that's part of it. We know that if we get people into safer cars, and the car technology has improved dramatically from the 1970s, and now we've got a lot of assistance for drivers, but that doesn't explain why the last couple of years we've seen this increase, and I'm concerned that there are—there's a trend emerging there which will see that spike continue for years into the future, and people are going to unnecessarily be killed or injured on our roads.

Jon Faine: If we drill down into the stats, we learn there are specific categories of road users who are causing and responsible for the turnaround in the otherwise steadily declining road toll. We know particularly people who ride motorbikes are much more likely than in the past to be involved in a fatal crash, and in particular middle aged men on motorbikes, or very young men on motorbikes, and we also know people involved in street racing, and we saw another one over the weekend, there's a significant increase in that category as well. I mean, no amount of the sorts of measures you're talking about there will have an impact on either of those two major categories.

Darren Chester: Well, I'm not convinced … with what you're saying there, Jon. I think we need to keep informing and educating people on the dangers involved. There will be a certain number of people who will do undertake risk taking behaviours which will end very badly for them and hopefully not for other people who are innocent bystanders. But we need to understand that there is an increase in illicit drug use involvement in accidents in recent times, and that's something that we can work on. We need to get a better understanding of what driver distractions in terms of the penetration of mobile phones into the marketplace. We're not really addressing that issue very well at the moment I don't think. If you drive along …

Jon Faine: [Interrupts] How would you like to address it? We've got very high penalties, police say they police it and enforce it as much as they can, although I'm somewhat sceptical, but they say they do. What else can you do?

Darren Chester: Well it's not about only the police; this has got to be a partnership approach. We need to understand that us as individual road users and members of the community, along with police, along with governments have a role in road safety. So I'm not sure that a lot of people actually understand the risk involved when they start using their mobile phone to text or to check things while they're driving along. Now I think that's an education program just waiting to be had across our nation. I could guarantee, Jon, that my young daughters, who are both P plate drivers, I don't think they'd ever drink and drive, but I couldn't guarantee they wouldn't look at their mobile phone as they were driving along, because it just penetrates their lives so much that the temptation is there. So I encourage them to put their phone in the glove box, but I don't think people understand that a couple of seconds looking at their phone when you're doing 100 kilometres an hour could have fatal consequences, not just for them but for other people on the road.

Jon Faine: It's constant, but is the evidence there that that's the cause of the turnaround in the states?

Darren Chester: Well that's what we're looking for. We're looking for more evidence on driver distraction. There's some international experiences which would indicate that it's certainly playing into it. There's some technological type approaches that can actually block out texts arriving into a phone when you're doing certain speeds, when you look at that, but that's possible for people to voluntarily [indistinct] implement in the future. There's a whole range of things we need to look at in terms of that driver distraction piece.

But this conversation today with the assistant commissioners and the commissioners from across Australia is an important one, and I'm pleased to see that they're coming from all parts of Australia. One of the really difficult issues we've got, Jon, is that the regional road toll is remaining stubbornly high and trending in the wrong way, perhaps even more so than the urban road toll, and some of that is to do with the simple fact that I think a lot of people in regional communities don't expect to get caught, and so some of their risk taking behaviour is more extreme than perhaps we can see in the city.

Jon Faine: I'm just looking for the report in today's Financial Review, I know I read it, but—oh here it is. The various consultants are warning in the Financial Review today, through Infrastructure Australia, that our road user charging system is just not going to survive in the future. It's based on raising taxes through the sale of fuel, and more and more cars don't use fuel as their sole or main source of propulsion. So if you've got an electric car, then a petrol tax doesn't do much. If you've got a hybrid car, well a petrol tax doesn't raise much, and increasingly it was swinging to that, and there's a suggestion we need to go back to road user fees, and more toll roads and other ways of raising the taxes to pay for our roads. Are you an enthusiast for that?

Darren Chester: Well, I mean, I'm an enthusiast for safer roads and that plays into the conversation we've just had. If we want to have the better infrastructure that we all aspire to across Australia and build those safer roads, we need to have a source of funding to do that. So the conversation which has already started over the last couple of years is looking at road pricing as a long term reform option over the next 10 or 15 years where you would see road revenue be- in the current, as you described, in the current form coming mainly from a fuel excise being replaced through a road-related taxes and charges to fund that sort of infrastructure.

So it's a complex piece of policy. It will take a long time to work it through with the community. The main thing to make sure is we have the conversation in a way that describes how it can be fair to motorists whether they live in an urban environment or a rural environment. And right now we see motorists in our rural areas paying in the order of about $1700 each to their local council for road maintenance compared to a city environment of about $200. So right now people are already paying a disproportionate amount in rural and regional areas to use their roads. But this issue of road user charging—or land transport market reform, as it's called—I think will take a long conversation with the community to work out how we can get it right.

Jon Faine: All the best for the festive season if this is the last time I get to chat to you and thank you for being readily available all through the course of this very dramatic year, Darren Chester. Thank you.

Darren Chester: Thank you Jon, and to just remind everyone to take care on the roads in the lead up to Christmas.

Jon Faine: The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester, attending that roundtable in Melbourne today.