Martin Small Consulting is committed to the elimination of fatal and serious injury on Australia’s roads, and we recently put forward for consideration some thoughts in response to the national inquiry commissioned by Hon Darren Chester.
Over the course of three posts, we will discuss key factors we consider are influencing Australia’s road safety results, issues in the delivery of the National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020, and some new ideas for how a national strategy could be made more effective.
Our contribution is not intended to be comprehensive or conclusive. Our contribution is put forward in the spirit of stimulating new ideas and approaches for how this major public health issue is tackled in Australia. We are confident that the inquiry will do justice to the former Minister’s concern for this major public health issue, and we hope that it is received and acted upon in a similar vein by his successor.
The national inquiry seeks to identify the key factors involved in the road crash death and serious injury trends including recent increases in 2015 and 2016.
We have not tried to deal with every factor, and have faith that the enquiry will address some of the obvious gaps that we have not touched. An example of this is the compliance and enforcement environment, which needs major attention, but can only be as effective as the standards which are set. Though recognised internationally for our contributions, Australia is currently punching well below our weight in road safety. We need to systematically lift our sights, and the safety standards which we hold ourselves to.
We consider five key factors that have been relevant to date and will continue to be relevant in the future.
1. The priority given to the prevention of road trauma by governments, parliaments, and public agencies with responsibilities for safety
While it is desirable in the future for community or market influences to lead safety improvement, the influence that governmental and parliamentary institutions have on public safety on the road is likely to dominate for some time yet. We know what needs to be done to reduce the enormous social and economic burden of road crashes on society. Some things are not being done, such as requiring a technology fix to reduce the impact of distraction in motor vehicles. Some things are being done, but not nearly enough, such as reducing motor vehicle speed on the road.
One aspect of the priority required is to clearly nominate an agency to lead the national road safety effort. This is the very first recommendation of the World Health Organisation for countries wishing to tackle their road safety problem, yet it does not exist in Australia. This issue is real in Australia. Our experience, and the growing literature, shows that it cannot be addressed through committees or roundtables. It requires a strong governance structure, and a dedicated work group of road safety professionals charged with achieving results.
Effective national lead agencies can take a wide variety of forms, but they always hold a clear political mandate, and are resourced to lead the national effort, making the most of the many contributions made by stakeholders. In Australia, “stakeholders” include the Commonwealth, States and Territories, major user representatives, professions, community and business.
2. The extent to which road infrastructure investment is directed to the safety of the existing network
The Victorian Safer Roads Infrastructure Program stands out as a systematic safety investment program, funded at a State level through its regulation of the injury insurance market, allowing road safety benefits to flow through to reduced insurance costs, creating a virtuous cycle for re-investment. There are other effective road infrastructure safety programs but they are generally under-resourced compared with the scale of the problem, and certainly in comparison with the generic road infrastructure investment in the State or Territory.
This is reflected in the interaction with the Commonwealth as it considers infrastructure investment. Typically, State and Territory proposals are for very big single infrastructure works, and not for safety projects along a nominated corridor. A strategic, transformative approach is needed, including a much stronger safety focus from the Commonwealth that breaks away from the small and piecemeal blackspot programs, and is a conditional part of new road infrastructure investment. At the very least, States and Territories seeking Commonwealth investment should be required to publish a national safety star rating assessment of their part of the national highway network.
3. The speed limits which motorists are advised to drive within
While compliance with current speed limits still needs to be improved, and further investment in this required, current speed limits are almost uniformly too high for the prevailing design, function and use of the road. The result is many hundreds of fatalities and thousands of serious injuries each year.
The vast bulk of motor vehicle drivers have no intention or desire to break the law, and in many different actions in each trip demonstrate their willingness to contribute to their own safety and the safety of others. Regrettably, in regard to the single biggest safety issue on our roads, speed limit signs repeatedly give false and/or misleading information, suggesting for example that it may be safe to drive up to 100 km/h or even 110 km/h on a two lane undivided road between two rural centres.
In rural Australia, some limited introduction of lower speeds on roads with poor safety is welcome, but it would appear that road agencies have not sufficiently internalized this agenda to the extent that the community believes them. In urban Australia, the devastating impact of speed on non-motorised users is compounded by the ongoing reticence to implement 50 km/h as the default urban limit on all roads where that is clearly the safe limit.
4. The safety quality of the vehicles which are allowed into, and remain in, Australia’s national fleet
For new light vehicles, this is perhaps the area in which Australia is, relatively speaking, performing at its best. But there is room to improve. A sustained consumer focus by the Australasian New Car Assessment Program, with State, Commonwealth and other support, has significantly lifted the safety of our new vehicle purchases. And lifting the bar of the five star safety standard will maintain this momentum for the light vehicle fleet.
As in all high-income countries, this is underpinned by the regulatory framework, and this needs constant attention. In particular, outside of the light vehicle fleet, we should be concerned about the length of time it has taken to regulate for ABS on motorcycles (beaten by India), and ESC and other technologies for trucks.
Looking well further forward, the nature of vehicle safety regulation needs to be fundamentally transformed to ensure autonomous vehicles are fail safe upon encountering a threat to life or health. Whichever way it is considered, much more investment and a new approach is needed in vehicle regulation. The old paradigm of regulate, check and enforce will not deliver the safety assurance needed with future technologies.
5. The extent to which work-related vehicle use is being managed as the number one trauma issue by organisations
Notwithstanding the systemic under-reporting of work related trauma on the road, the scale of Australians’ exposure to serious injury on the road while at work is significant, and its profile as an organizational issue will only continue to rise. In cooperation with Austroads, work health and safety regulators appear closer than ever to producing Australasia’s first comprehensive guidance for WHS duty holders in this critical area. Around one in three light vehicle trips are work related (excluding commuting). Just as consumer information has been critical in extracting road safety value from vehicle safety regulation, it will be interesting to observe the extent to which duty holder information will extract road safety value from WHS regulation.
We also need to address organisational safety practices more widely. No-one catches a plane, train or ferry operated without a safety management system, but we scarcely think twice about this when it comes to the road – the most dangerous transport system. ISO 39001 Road Traffic Safety Management Systems provides organisations with the means to publicly demonstrate their safety credentials in the market place, yet no steps are being taken to incorporate this standard into public procurement systems. For example, ISO quality management systems and environmental management systems are required for every major road contract in Australia, but not a road safety management system – why is that? Public expectation of safety will only increase over time, and we need to start getting ahead of this ever-present and under-addressed risk in daily life.
Next up, we address issues regarding the effectiveness of the National Road Safety Strategy.