2016 Australasian Road Safety Conference Dinner and Awards

Speech

DCS001/2016

07 September 2016

Great Hall, Parliament House

Congratulations to the Australasian College of Road Safety, Austroads, and the George Institute on hosting such an important gathering of road safety professionals.

An event like this takes many people to pull together and I would like to acknowledge and thank:

  • Claire Howe—the Executive Officer of ACRS;
  • Nick Koukoulas—the CEO of Austroads;
  • Mike Mrdak—my departmental secretary; and
  • Marcus James who heads up my Department's Road Safety and Productivity Branch.

Ladies and gentlemen, can I ask you to stand up for a moment.

As a mark of respect for the 1292 people who have died on Australian roads in the past 12 months, please join with me in a moment's silence and reflection.

Thank you—and please be seated.

I don't know what you thought about: but I thought about the friends and family I have lost to car crashes.

And I thought about what I'm going to do to make a difference.

What I've done to make a difference today.

What I'm going to do to make a difference tomorrow.

What I can do to make a difference next week, next year and beyond.

I entered politics to ‘make a difference’ just as many of you chose to work in road safety because you want to ‘make a difference’.

In this room tonight we have the people with the energy, expertise and opportunity to work together to make that difference.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem.

Road trauma is increasing in many parts of Australia and we don't really know why.

We've all got some ideas, but if we are honest with each other, we don't really know why it's happening.

Our shared challenge is to find out ‘why’ and decide what we can do about it: in the short term, medium term and longer term.

We have a public health crisis which is claiming more than 1200 lives and seriously injuring tens of thousands of Australians each year.

It's costing the community in the order of $30 billion and unimaginable personal suffering through grief and a lifetime of regrets.

The impact it has on our first responders: the ambulance officers, police, fire brigade, State Emergency Services—is impossible to measure.

There was a 10.3 per cent increase in road deaths over the past 12 months and hardly anyone has noticed in the community or in the mainstream media.

Personally, it worries me that we have almost become accepting of deaths and serious injuries as a price we have to pay for a modern transport system.

After decades of consistent improvements in road safety and reductions in road trauma, the past two years has presented some alarming figures.

After being among the world leaders, if there was an Olympic Games for road safety in 2016, Australia wouldn't win a medal.

The latest BITRE data should serve as a call to action for us all—we are not on target to reach the National Road Safety Strategy targets and we are failing in our efforts to keep Australians safe on our roads.

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.

I know 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, ride a motorcycle or simply cross the road.

We have to make this personal and we have to shake off the national complacency and acceptance which I believe is contributing to the growth in road trauma.

Think of it like this:

If 120 people died each month in disease outbreak on Australian soil the community and media would be demanding action.

Our governments would respond with legislative changes—some of which would be unpopular and politically difficult but would be accepted on the basis of ‘keeping the community safe’.

But we seem resigned to the fact that every day, many people are killed and maimed on our roads and it hardly rates a mention in the media or the national political debate.

I refuse to accept that this is the best we can do.

At the recent Transport Industry Council meeting of state Ministers with a responsibility for road safety, I highlighted my concerns and received support to host a national forum this year to allow for a full exchange of ideas on measures to reduce road trauma.

It will be held in Perth in November and will follow an important meeting next month where various departmental heads will meet to bring together actions we can take at all levels of government and community.

We need to bring together the best and brightest minds on road trauma and implement their ideas on a national basis.

That's why I invited various industry experts to meet with me in Parliament House on Monday to present their ideas—I asked them to describe their road safety challenges and possible solutions.

It may have been the first time, but it won't be the last time.

I intend to host regular road safety round tables where experts in particular fields will be asked to gather and put forward practical solutions.

I'm not interested in endless talkfests—too many people are dying and being maimed every day—for me to simply talk about road safety.

I want action—I want to make a difference.

Ladies and gentlemen: you might have guessed by now that I'm passionate about road safety.

A radio reporter once asked me why?

When there are so many issues in the infrastructure and transport portfolio—why was I singling our road safety as an area of particular focus.

She wanted to know if it was personal.

I replied that you don't get to 48 years old in Australia without loving someone who has been killed or injured in a road crash.

We've all been touched by road trauma—we've all lost friends or family members in crashes that could have been avoided.

As much as I'm passionate about the issue, I am a realist.

I'm not expecting a ‘silver bullet’ or a single measure that will solve the problem because we all understand there's often a combination of factors which lead to each serious crash.

We need to continue our research, share the data widely and take decisions—some of which may be unpopular but will be necessary in the interests of community safety.

It's not as if proven safety measures such as compulsory wearing of seat-belts, blood alcohol testing and speed limits were wildly popular when they were introduced.

But they were reforms that have saved lives and we should be thankful that our predecessors had the courage of their convictions.

Our research tells us that safer drivers, in safer cars, on safer roads will save lives and reduce serious injuries in the future.

We're all familiar with this ‘safe system’ approach but despite record levels of investment in safer roads by state and federal governments, enforcement blitzes and multi-million dollar road safety advertising campaigns, road trauma has increased.

I'm reluctant to speculate too much and will wait for further advice and the national Ministerial forum but I have my suspicions about some of the causes.

Anecdotal reports from police suggest to me that many road users have become immune to the advertising warnings on speed, fatigue and drink and drug driving.

They tell me that driver distraction is playing an increased role in crashes.

We've all driven behind a car which is drifting across the freeway only to overtake and observe the driver sending a text message.

When we stop at traffic lights: how many times do you see drivers checking their messages?

It makes me wonder what is so important in their life that they would risk death or permanent injury to send a message.

‘Pick the kids up from soccer’, ‘Get a loaf of bread’, ‘See you Saturday night’ or ‘Thanks for lunch’ is a message which is hardly worth dying for.

In fact, no message is worth dying for.

The penetration of iphones and other devices into our daily lives is enormous and it is tempting to check that message.

I can just about guarantee that my P plate driving daughters will not ‘drink and drive’ but I'm not certain they won't check their phones.

They've got the message on alcohol, but have they got the message on driver distraction?

We need to keep assessing our research and implement campaigns across state borders that are proven to work.

It is a source of great personal and professional frustration that we are often operating in silos across state borders.

There can only be one ‘best practice’ in Australia.

If one state has a better idea, a better set of licensing laws, a better communication campaign—then we should be sharing it.

We want the best system in place across Australia, particularly when it comes to public messaging on road user behaviour.

But 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 people into safer cars, trucks and safer motorcycles.

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.

In any case, if a vehicle is not properly maintained throughout its life, the safety features are worthless.

There's not much point have braking assist technology on bald tyres.

Our challenge is to get Australians into safer vehicles, sooner and unfortunately I don't have a simple answer.

‘Cash for clunker’ schemes haven't worked: but I'm keen to work with industry to develop incentives to get drivers into safer vehicles at a faster rate to allow the benefits to flow.

Safe vehicles are proven to reduce the likelihood of a crash occurring and if a crash does occur, the occupants of the vehicle are less likely to be injured.

Safer vehicles can also minimise injuries to vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians.

A safer vehicle 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 accident in their early years of driving which usually coincides with them driving the worst car of their lives.

Maybe there's a role here for the private sector to step up and take its share of responsibility to reduce road trauma.

The car manufacturers, banking and insurance sectors could be working with governments to develop lower cost loan schemes, insurance incentives or other innovative schemes to help get our young people driving the safest cars possible.

I've also had some discussions—and expect to have more—with the trucking industry to consider measures that will renew the heavy vehicle fleet.

There are major environmental benefits to be achieved through newer vehicles and they come with vastly improved safety features.

Our heavy vehicle sector plays a crucial role in our national economic life and we want to provide a safe workplace for drivers and other road users.

And that brings me to the road and transport network itself.

Ladies and gentlemen: I repeatedly tell anyone who will listen:

Good infrastructure can change lives and it can save lives.

Our $50 billion infrastructure investment program is important because it can change lives by reducing congestion, improving productivity, getting people home to their kids sooner—where they want to be.

But it can also save lives.

Investing in engineering solutions, which are often quite affordable, can actually save lives.

Our investment in major projects like the Pacific Highway duplication, Bruce Highway upgrades and various urban freeways are already paying dividends in reduced crashes and road trauma.

We have a $248 million Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program and a $500 million community-led Blackspots program that focuses on reducing deaths and serious injuries.

But as passionate advocates for road safety: we need to keep making the case loudly and proudly.

In an environment where every budget dollar is hard to secure, we must present the research and evidence to justify the investment by governments, which we all believe is necessary.

We know that safer roads, save lives and we need to keep funding this important work in our cities, country roads and regional highways.

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 every night and now is the right time for a national conversation about reducing road trauma.

We can't accept the current trend and proceed with business as usual.

Finally, I want to simply thank you all.

Thank you for taking the time to be here this week to contribute to this national conversation on road safety.

Thank you for your years of hard work—your tireless efforts in the past to reduce the number of road deaths and serious injuries.

But most of all, thank you for the work you are going to do in the future.

If we are going to achieve our mutual goals to save lives and reduce serious injuries we are going to have to work together.

It is important work, and you will be making a difference.

Thank you.