Road Trauma

Opinion Piece

DCO-001/2017

04 January 2017

Australian Newspaper

Forget about drinking less alcohol or losing a few kilos if you want to make New Year's resolution, commit yourself to becoming a better, safer, and more respectful driver.

After recording the worst road fatality rate in five years, we need to re-think our approach to road safety and it begins with each of us taking responsibility for our own actions.

Road trauma is costing Australia in the order of $30 billion per year and the social cost of shattered lives and grieving loved ones is impossible to measure.

Too many people are being killed and injured on our roads and it won't be police and governments which solve the problem in isolation. It will take a concerted effort from all of us to accept personal responsibility and work in partnership in each of our communities to eliminate road trauma.

There's no point looking for a single solution because it doesn't exist. It's a complex equation of engineering and maintaining safer roads, developing a safe driving culture and getting more Australians behind the wheels of the safest possible vehicles.

After decades of consistent improvements in road safety and reductions in road trauma, we are experiencing a national spike in deaths and serious injuries which has led to meetings of all state transport ministers and further discussions among senior police from each jurisdiction.

Those meetings highlighted the need to work together more across state boundaries in 2017; share research and road safety campaign material; develop better drug testing; harmonise licensing laws; and promote the purchasing of safer vehicles.

Australia used to be a world leader in road safety but now we are languishing in the middle of the pack.

We have come a long way since 1970 when 3,798 people died on Australia's roads but we should not accept that more than 1,200 deaths per year is a price we have to pay for a modern transport system.

Poor driver behaviour is obviously part of the problem with speed, fatigue and excessive alcohol use among the usual culprits. But there has also been a marked increase in people driving after taking illicit drugs and ‘at risk’ groups such as motorcyclists, pedestrians and older Australians are over-represented in the road trauma statistics.

A disproportionate number of people are being killed and injured in regional areas where the roads have less safety features and high speed crashes have tragic consequences.

The day I was appointed Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport I pledged to work with state governments, police and local communities to deliver a national focus backed up by practical action to reduce road trauma.

The states have primary responsibility for road safety but this is not a problem we can handball to other levels of government or police.

It's up to each of us to accept responsibility for our own safety along with our passengers and other road users, every time we get behind the wheel.

We should all be driving like there's a police officer in the back seat and not playing the ‘game’ of trying to avoid detection by speed cameras, texting at traffic lights or sneaking home on back roads if you've been drinking too much.

Let's stop pretending mum or dad is still OK to drive if they can hardly see past the bonnet and their reflexes are slowing. If they shouldn't be on the road, don't wait for police to catch them, have the tough conversation as a family and work out a solution.

The police and other emergency service personnel have witnessed too much trauma and knocked on too many doors to treat this like a ‘game’.

Promoting better driver behaviour doesn't touch two of the other key issues in road safety: improving the safety of the road network and getting drivers into safer cars.

New technology can help the driver to avoid crashes or minimise the severity of injury if an accident occurs. However, the average age of the Australian vehicle fleet of 10 years means it takes several years for the benefits of safety innovations to flow through to the second hand market and some safety features available overseas are slow to arrive in this country.

A safer car may turn a potentially serious injury into a minor one and save the health budget millions of dollars in follow up treatment. The bitter irony is that young drivers face the highest risk of crashes in their early years of driving which usually coincides with them driving the worst car of their lives.

The banking and insurance sectors should be working with governments to develop schemes to help our young people purchase the safest cars possible.

And that leaves us with the road and transport network itself. Our aim must be to prevent road crashes and if they still occur, to minimise their consequences and extent of injury for all involved.

Duplication of major highways, installation of road safety barriers, widening road shoulders, better lighting, tactile line marking, improved signage and increasing the number of rest areas are all strategies currently being rolled out through various local, state and federal initiatives.

Supporting rail freight upgrades to take some of the transport task off our roads, improving public transport links and providing dedicated cycling lanes also have a role to play.

These measures are all aimed at getting more Australians home safely to their families each day.

Now is the right time for a national conversation about reducing road trauma.