09 March 2017
Subjects: Road safety
Chris Smith: Darren Chester is the Federal Minister for both Infrastructure and Transport, and he joins me on the line. Minister, thank you very much for your time.
Darren Chester: Oh, and thank you Chris for your long running interest in road safety too.
Chris Smith: Yeah, it is a real problem and the thing that occurred to me after that accident and it is a concern, that it could have been myself and my young kids in the car on a stretch of motorway where nothing problematic was occurring and then all of a sudden, out of the blue from across 30 metres away comes this car, catapulted into the air, almost launched from that V-shaped median strip and straight into my car. I thought that is frightening and surely there are ways to prevent that from happening.
Darren Chester: Chris, first of all you are right, there are three ways we can look at road safety, it's a complex equation but it is safer roads, safer drivers, and safer cars. We know that people will still make mistakes, so in terms of designing and engineering our road network, we need to make sure we are making some accommodation for those occasions when drivers do make mistakes. Now, obviously the other occasion when drivers behave badly, and not suggesting for a second that it had anything to do with this actual incident, but if a driver's intoxicated or driving too fast or been taking drugs, that is another compounding factor. But we know that sober, drug-free drivers who aren't speeding still make mistakes and that is why the wire rope barriers have been good in reducing the number of head-on collisions in many highways around Australia.
Chris Smith: So, it is not as if the Federal Transport Department is not aware of their effectiveness, right?
Darren Chester: Not at all. There is a commitment across both state and federal level to improve the safety of the road network. Look at our road safety black spots program which is $500 million the Federal Government puts in to support the states and their efforts and it is continuing to roll out projects around the nation. But there is a back log of work to be done and I'm not sure either how many kilometres are left to be done on some of our duplicated highways, but there is a lot of work still going on in many jurisdictions. On our country roads, we are putting the wire rope barriers alongside some of the major arterial routes as well.
But it is using the best engineering treatments to reduce the severity of an accident when it does occur and putting in a margin of error for drivers who may well make a mistake at some stage in their driving career.
Chris Smith: Yeah, and I looked at some of the statistics from last year and it is 1400-odd I think it was in terms of national …
Darren Chester: 1300 across Australia last year, which was one our worst in the last decade. It was a terrible year for us Chris.
Chris Smith: And most of those occurring on country roads, and I thought to myself I know there are a lot of country roads and I know this would be an expensive thing to do, but maybe these wire barriers are what we should be rolling out. Maybe it is not necessarily the responsibility of federal government, but maybe it's a combination of local council, state government, and federal government.
Darren Chester: I think you are right again. It is across all levels of government that we need to understand where the safety risk is and it is on higher-speed regional roads, whether they be highways or those major arterial routes. We need to keep building motorists' understanding of why the wire rope has been put out, because some people don't like them, and then when we do put them in place we need to make sure we leave room on the shoulders of the road so people can still pull off safely and tend to a vehicle breakdown or if something goes wrong in that regard.
So there is a lot of things to consider in terms of how you roll out the wire ropes and other barriers. But the bottom line is when you drive along and you see an area of wire rope that has been impacted, you realise then that that would've been a tree that car hit if it hadn't hit that wire rope, or that would've been a vehicle coming in the other direction it would have hit if that had been a centre median strip barrier. So they certainly work; they certainly reduce the severity of crashes that may occur and they prevent people from hitting solid objects at high speeds. So I'm a supporter of the wire ropes, I'm a supporter of improving driver education to make sure we behave properly ourselves, but also I'm a supporter of making sure we encourage people to get into the safest car they can afford to reduce the severity of a crash if it does occur.
Chris Smith: As a motorcyclist, I have always been under the impression that the wire rope was not necessarily a safe thing for motorcyclists to come in contact with. Having said that, if you are going along at 110 kilometres an hour and leave the road with only two wheels and you are a motorcyclist, you don't stand much hope anyway. But I understood from the expert that I spoke to yesterday that it wasn't the danger that I thought it was, and that there was no data suggesting it is more dangerous for motorcyclists.
Darren Chester: Certainly, the motorcycle industry and user-groups have had a fairly negative attitude to wire ropes over the last decade or so. I don't think that the wire ropes deserve the reputation they have amongst the motorcycle fraternity, because the research I have seen is that in the instances where a motorcyclist loses control, more often than not by the time they've reached the roadside barrier the bike is already laid down. So they are not in a position where they believe they'll be cut more badly on a wire rope than any other roadside barrier. I perhaps shouldn't go into too much detail to be gruesome in that regard, but I understand that they are a good safety treatment for motorcyclists, more than perhaps the motorcyclists themselves believe. But more generally, the research from Monash University Accident Research Centre certainly tells us that relatively low-cost engineering solutions—like wire ropes, like those rumble strips on the lines on the side of the road, on the centreline markings—all those sorts of things helps to reduce the frequency of crashes or the severity of crashes if they do occur.
We can't get away from the fact that as motorists we have our own responsibilities. We've got to drive safely, but there will be mistakes made, and it is up to us as governments at all levels to try and build safety into the road environment itself, the way we actually design the road in the first place so terrible crashes have less chance of occurring and certainly have less severity. You can only feel sorry for the poor family involved in this latest crash; it is just a horrible, horrible crash and there are still people being treated in hospital now. It is just a terrible, terrible accident.
Chris Smith: Over the Christmas period I came into a social event with someone from the accident squad here in New South Wales, and I had a chat to them about the kind of road crash and the cause of a road crash that seems to be growing. They were saying we have got two significant problems: People fixed to their mobile phones, and also drugged drivers. Are they the two areas that we have got to do a lot more work on?
Darren Chester: Well whoever you were talking to is well informed, Chris. The number of people who have been treated for serious injuries or killed in recent times with drugs in their system, illicit drugs in their system, has increased dramatically and police are working hard to increase the number of roadside detections. The simple message there is if you have been taking drugs, do not get behind the wheel of a car. There has been a very steady increase—in fact, it is outpacing alcohol in terms of the impact on fatality crashes in jurisdictions like Victoria at the moment.
In terms of driver distraction, we don't have enough real evidence, but everywhere you drive you see people texting or checking their phones at traffic lights, people veering to the wrong side of the road. It is clearly a factor in crashes, but we don't have clear evidence yet to prove that it has been the causal factor or the reason the crash occurred in the first place. But I just appeal to people to put your mobile phone in the glove box when you are driving; you do not need to send text messages, there is no message worth dying for. We simply can't put it any other way, you have just got to put your phone away when you're driving and just don't be distracted.
Chris Smith: Yeah, it is terrible. Okay, thank you very much for providing time with us and it is reassuring to know that you're onto these key issues. Thank you so much.
Darren Chester: All the best, Chris. Take care on the roads everyone.
Chris Smith: Alright Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester.