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A canter on my hobby-horse
More to making roads safer than counting the dead
Date: January 18 2006

The traditional holiday blitz helps, but there are other ways to protect people, writes Julie Hatfield.
FREQUENT road toll updates have become as much a part of the Christmas tradition as ham and pudding. Granted, this owes something to the perception that crashes are most common during holiday periods. Perhaps the reports are intended to scare us into driving more carefully. Crashes are actually less frequent during holiday than non-holiday periods. So we are driving more carefully, partly because of double demerit points.
Road toll updates feed our desire to be horrified. They seem to imply it is particularly tragic for people to die during holidays, and allow a healthy dissatisfaction with the authorities for not doing enough to curb road trauma. But what do the numbers mean? Aren't the roads getting safer?

About 504 people died on NSW roads last year (after adjustment for deaths from medical causes) compared with 510 in 2004, and 577 in 1999. However, these numbers do not account for increases in population and the use of motor vehicles. In 1908, the first year of road toll recording, 127 people died on our roads. But NSW then had four times fewer people, and only one death involved a car. The rest involved mostly horses and trams.

In 2005, seven in every 100,000 people died in a road crash - the lowest fatality rate on record.

In 1999 the NSW Government promised to save 820 lives on the roads by 2005 - a promise it couldn't keep. In the following five years, 2737 people died in road crashes - 243 fewer than would have died if the 1999 fatality rate of nine in every 100,000 had persisted. So we could say that 243 lives have been saved - through improvements in roads, vehicles and road-user behaviour.

Fatality rates for motorcyclists or pedal-cyclists have been particularly stubborn, probably because more people are riding to avoid paying ever more hefty fuel prices. Pedestrian fatality rates have increased slightly.

Roads can be made safer for all users by addressing key "problem areas". Young drivers, particularly males, are over-represented in crashes, with 17- to 25-year-olds representing about 48 per cent of drivers in fatal car crashes, but only 31 per cent of licence holders. The graduated licensing system and zero blood alcohol limit have been sensible strategies for addressing the "young driver problem". Recent restrictions on high-powered vehicles are of less merit because dangerous speeds can be reached in most vehicles.

Research suggests that increasing the licensing age may be effective in reducing young drivers' crash rates. Risky driving is a problem in this group, partly because of social pressures and because the brain area responsible for inhibiting risky behaviour is not fully developed until the mid-20s.
Speeding increases crash likelihood and severity for all road users. It contributes to about 36 per cent of fatal crashes. More effective enforcement of speed limits would help. Reliance on identifiable speed cameras means that drivers limit their speeds mostly near the cameras. Research suggests general safety would benefit more from inconspicuous cameras and systems that assess speed over a stretch of road rather than at a single location.

Perhaps the ultimate solution is to introduce systems that govern vehicle speeds to the local limit using global positioning technology. No more fines because of forgetting to check your speed. No more irresponsible advertising of vehicle speed capabilities.

The mention of strategies such as speed governing always raises concerns about restriction of personal liberty. This is an interesting issue for road safety. While we are horrified at the road toll, and convinced that more should be done, many of us rail against traffic regulations. We cry "revenue-raising". We buy radar detectors. We drive when we are too tired to react quickly to problems.

Many crashes result from human error and risk-taking. People take risks partly because they believe that unpleasant events, like car crashes, only happen to other people. This "illusory invulnerability" is likely to be strengthened by news reports about other people dying on the roads. If we could extend our careful holiday driving into other times of year, the road toll would improve.

Increased law enforcement is one way of improving road-user behaviour. Engineering is a way of making it irrelevant. We may soon be able to manufacture cars that cannot crash because they cannot speed, cannot skid, can detect objects and stop before colliding with them. Would we want to drive such cars? How low can we get the road toll without them?

Julie Hatfield is a senior research fellow at the Injury Risk Management Research Centre at the University of NSW.

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