On 16 February 2018 former Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, Darren Chester MP, made a contribution on road safety to the House of Representatives.
I rise to highlight ongoing concerns with the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. I refer to the recent report of the Australian Automobile Association which found that road trauma costs the Australian economy in the order of $30 billion per year. That’s the economic cost, but that doesn’t tell anywhere near the story when it comes to the social cost of road trauma. Last year, in total, 1,225 Australians lost their lives on our roads. That was an improvement on 2016, when almost 1,300 died on Australian roads. A disproportionate number were on our regional roads. Tens of thousands of people were injured—the walking wounded who will carry the scars of their road crash for the rest of their lives. I believe that we can do better. I simply don’t accept that 1,200 to 1,300 Australians have to die on our roads each year.
I believe there’s an opportunity, following a very traumatic December across Australia, to capitalise on the renewed community and media focus on road trauma. I think it provides a rare opportunity for the state and federal ministers responsible for road safety to take a more aggressive approach to saving lives and reducing serious injuries. In my time as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, I attempted to drive a national agenda on road safety, but I must acknowledge that I was often frustrated and disappointed by the timidity of our decision-makers and the public complacency surrounding road trauma. It was as though there was a level of acceptance that, within our bureaucracy and perhaps the wider community, there wasn’t much else we could do to improve road safety and we just had to accept that up to 1,300 Australians would die each year and thousands more would be maimed for life.
I have noticed, and you would have too, that the media only sparingly reports on road crashes in the modern era. Unless you’re a famous person or someone of some notoriety, you’d hardly get a story in a newspaper, unless it was a particularly spectacular crash. An everyday Australian, perhaps crashing into a tree on a country road, would be lucky to receive a couple of paragraphs in a daily newspaper, yet the effects of that crash ripple right through the community, devastating loved ones and traumatising the first responders at the scene. We had a firsthand experience of this in my home town over the Christmas break. The circumstances surrounding the crash are obviously subject to a coronial investigation, but we had the tragic death of three locals: one boy, whom I coached in under-14 football; a girl who was a friend of my family; and a fellow I didn’t know very well —nonetheless, three people were killed in the one crash. That crash obviously impacts people who know the family; it shatters families and friends. The toll on emergency service workers is something that I perhaps didn’t understand as much as I should have in my role. I had the opportunity to talk to the police officers who’ve spent hours at the scene, the SES volunteers and the CFA volunteers, and it gives you an understanding of how a crash like this can ripple right through a community, particularly a small country community. Obviously it affects the families themselves, but it goes right through a community. And it happens 1,300 times across a calendar year in Australia—1,300 individuals killed, but hundreds and thousands more impacted by those crashes.
I contend that road trauma is a public health crisis in our nation. We need sustained help from the media to keep telling the individual stories to humanise this debate beyond mere statistics and a running count in the newspapers. I refuse to use the word ‘toll’ because a toll suggests it’s a price we have to pay to use our roads. We shouldn’t use the word ‘toll’, because it seems to give a level of acceptance, again, to the fact that there are going to be these crashes and serious injuries and deaths every year. But we need to keep learning from every story. Every time this occurs, we need to make sure everyone understands their own responsibilities on the roads and the risks that are involved in using our roads.
Despite my personal and professional frustration with the lack of progress in reducing road trauma in the time I was in the role of minister, there is a lot of research and other activity currently underway at a national level, which we need to continue to promote. While the states have primary responsibility for road safety, over the period of the past 20 months I convened a round table of road trauma experts. I brought senior police together from across the country, and we made road safety a priority item for action at the Transport and Infrastructure Council meeting of state ministers.
I’m pleased to report that the federal government commissioned additional research on mobile phone distraction, which we believe is a significant risk in road crashes in Australia at the moment, and also some research into roadside testing for illicit drug use. Illicit drug use in 2015 in Victoria showed up in road deaths at a higher rate than excessive consumption of alcohol. So, while it appears that we have made great progress in encouraging drivers to not drive when they’ve been drinking, separating illicit drug use and driving is an emerging problem of great significance in the community. Both mobile phone distraction and illicit drug use were suspected to be major contributing factors to the recent spike we saw in road trauma.
During my role as minister, I wrote to local governments around Australia and provided them with a statement of expectations on how they should use their annual Roads to Recovery funding to target safety on local roads. While there’s been a major investment in freeways and duplication of our National Land Transport Network, it’s actually those local roads and smaller arterial roads where a lot of crashes are occurring. I encouraged local government to target some of that money provided by the federal government directly at road safety.
I’m also pleased to inform the House that two of Australia’s leading road safety experts, Jeremy Woolley and Dr John Crozier, are set to deliver an independent review of the National Road Safety Strategy in the coming weeks, and all of this information—the mobile phone study, the illicit drug use study and the work by these two experts—will be available to the new minister, Barnaby Joyce, as he shapes the latest version of the National Road Safety Action Plan, in partnership with the states.
I’m disappointed to report that we are currently not on target to meet the expectation we set for ourselves through the National Road Safety Strategy. The latest progress report indicates that progress towards the target of reducing fatalities by 30 per cent is poor, and we’re not meeting the target of reducing serious injuries either. This is a strategy which has bipartisan support. It started in the Rudd government and was continued by the Turnbull government. We need to redouble our efforts if we’re going to achieve the targets we set ourselves through the National Road Safety Strategy.
As I told the TIC meeting in Hobart last year, ‘business as usual’ won’t be good enough. We need to be more ambitious in our efforts, with measurable actions to reduce trauma further. Through my consultation with industry, we’re aware that the Safe System approach is the way to deal with this. It’s about safer roads, safer drivers and safer vehicles and it’s also about safer speeds.
My view is: we need to have a renewed public focus on inappropriate speed in our regional areas, coupled with a major increase in arterial road funding to target high-risk regional corridors which have poor safety features. Through my previous work as a minister, I have publicly spoken about continued investment in black spots, and continued investment in rest areas, duplicating highways and overtaking lanes—all good initiatives—but I believe we need to also develop a roads of strategic importance program to target some of those arterial roads in partnership with the states. Some treatment of networks, rather than individual black spots, will also contribute to reducing road trauma and improving the productivity of our regional communities.
I’d also say that point-to-point speed cameras should be activated for light vehicles as well trucks, and states which fail to comply should have some of their funding withheld until they do. Point-to-point speed cameras are a fair way of measuring inappropriate speed. I have some concerns with the way we use single-point speed cameras. I think sometimes they’re deployed by states as revenue-raising devices, and in fact they don’t change a driver’s behaviour because they don’t know that they’ve even been booked until they get the letter in the mail a couple of weeks later, so they may well just keep on speeding for those couple of weeks. Point-to-point speed cameras I think would have greater acceptance amongst the community and would also be a fairer way of catching people who habitually speed rather than speeding at one small point in time.
The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator has already started introducing more data-gathering cameras to track the rogue operators in the industry, and the good operators in the heavy vehicle industry support the use of more cameras because they know they’re being undercut by operators who are acting outside the law. I believe funding needs to be provided to deliver more of this technology, to punish those offenders and to reward those compliant drivers and compliant business operators who say that right now they’re being undercut on price by those who do flout the law.
I think there’s also an opportunity for the private sector to be involved in the road safety debate. We need to engage with the banking and insurance sectors to make sure they’re developing products or incentives for motorists to purchase the safest car they can afford for themselves and their children so that we can capitalise on the safety technology in modern cars. It’s a sad fact that, for most of us, the worst car we will ever drive will be our first car and we’re at higher risk of having a crash in those first few years of driving. The more we can do to get younger Australians into newer and safer cars, the better they will be, since, if they are unfortunate enough to have a crash, there will be more protection for them, but also the driver-assist technology which is available in modern cars can help them avoid a crash in the first place. So we need to be engaging with the banking and insurance sectors on ways we can incentivise the purchase of safer cars.
Finally—without wishing to pre-empt the work of Woolley and Crozier in their review of the National Road Safety Strategy—I would say we need to get the states actually working together to share best practice in road safety across state borders. Despite some improvements over the last few years, there are still too many discrepancies in legislation across each jurisdiction around training, licensing and road laws, and a lack of datagathering and sharing. I make the point that, when it comes to getting the states actually working together to share the best practice, if all of the other jurisdictions were able to achieve the Victorian fatality rate of four per 100,000 people, 253 lives could be saved nationally, with 78 in New South Wales, 56 in Western Australia, 51 in Queensland and 32 in South Australia. That is quite remarkable. If everyone could achieve the same standard Victoria achieved, we would see 253 lives saved nationally. As to the Northern Territory—and the member for Lingiari is here today and he would share my concerns—the Territory itself has a real challenge, because of the vast distances, and the standard of the roads and the potential for multiple casualties in one crash. We need to keep working with the Territory to get it down to levels more comparable to the other jurisdictions.
Finally, I would say that, as road users, we all need to take our share of responsibility for road safety. Our police officers, government departments, ministers and road safety experts can only do so much. The government’s $75 billion investment in infrastructure over the next 10 years will help. But every time we get behind the wheel, we need to have a safety-first culture and drive to survive the journey ahead. We all know we shouldn’t speed. We know we shouldn’t drink and drive. We know we shouldn’t check our text messages or get behind the wheel when we’re fatigued. But too many of us are still doing one or more of these things and putting lives at risk—putting our own lives at risk, putting our families’ lives at risk, putting the lives of the driver and the other people in the car coming towards us at risk. We are still doing too many of these things. We are still speeding. We are still drinking and driving. We’re still checking our text messages or getting behind the wheel when we’re too tired. It has to stop. In an era where it’s convenient to always find someone else to blame, the main answer to reducing road trauma is probably looking straight back at us in the rear-view mirror.
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