Martin Small Consulting is committed to the elimination of fatal and serious injury on Australia’s roads. A national road safety strategy is essential, and we recently put forward for consideration some thoughts in response to the national inquiry commissioned by Hon Darren Chester.
This is the second of three posts. The first post discussed key factors that are influencing Australia’s road safety outcomes. This post examines the role of the National Strategy and its effectiveness as a document that should commit all jurisdictions, and all stakeholders within each jurisdiction, to action.
Our contribution is not intended to be comprehensive or conclusive. No criticisms of particular people or institutions are implied or intended. 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.
The specific actions necessary to achieve significant improvements in road safety outcomes are largely known. These are dependent on leadership, commitment and resourcing that are currently at a level insufficient to achieve significant change. A national strategy is essential to support this but requires fundamental change to its scope and development process to achieve this.
Above all, a national strategy should provide a mechanism for individual jurisdictions and agencies to undertake joint development of strategy that can be implemented by all.
The effectiveness of a road safety strategy can be considered against quite generic principles of effective strategy management. These can be summarised as:
- Focus on the few things
- Clearly define actions
- Create unambiguous accountabilities
- Measure, review and adjust
The National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020 (NRSS) demonstrates some elements of these but improvement is possible in all areas.
Focus on the few things
Effective strategies focus on the few things that matter most. The NRSS seeks to address the main road safety issues but tries not to leave anything out. Rather than achieve a few things well, the risk of this approach is that many things are only partially addressed. An alternative approach could be to agree a few high priority issues – for example, urban speed management, or heavy vehicle safety – put all efforts towards achieving substantial and sustainable improvements in these areas, and then move on.
Imagine how we could accelerate change if for, say 18 months, the focus of all our efforts was at implementing effective speed management to protect vulnerable road users. There obviously needs to be some pragmatism in this to ensure a balance while we carried on business as usual in other areas. But we currently attempt to do everything with equal priority.
This weakness was identified in the 2014 review of the national strategy and a focus was put on issues that ”warrant national attention”. While understandable, this restricts the opportunity for the strategy to be a “a blueprint to reduce deaths and serious injuries on the nation’s roads”, as described by Minister Chester in announcing the current inquiry, since most of the required actions in such a blueprint will not be national.
Clearly define actions
Actions that are not clearly defined may not be effective, may not be implemented to the extent envisaged at the start and are unlikely to represent an effective call to action. This has been a particularly problematic area for road safety in Australia. Many actions in the NRSS do not define a clear deliverable that allows progress or completion to be assessed.
For example, Action 24 in the original strategy document “Investigate technology-based options to minimise driver distraction from in-vehicle devices” does not define an output and provides no guidance about the scale of effort required. An alternative action such as “Develop and implement standards for vehicles, nomadic devices and their interfaces to eliminate undue driver distraction from in-vehicle devices” would be a more measurable, and ambitious, action. Some may rightly argue that the investigation has to come first but to make this the end point of a national strategy is weak. Strategies need some flexibility if initial investigations highlight the need for adjustment.
Create unambiguous accountabilities
Some actions, where they are clearly the responsibility of a single jurisdiction or agency, have a clearly defined accountability. These were lacking in the original published strategy in 2011 but are now present in the action plan prepared following the 2014 review. However, many are shown as joint responsibilities among states and territories. This reflects the current responsibilities for road management and road safety but joint responsibilities inevitably weaken any accountability to deliver. This arises from the undefined expectations on each party and an inability for objective assessment as to the extent and success of any action.
Actions that define a single responsible entity oblige that entity to respond in terms of the proposed objective and their achievement of that objective. This must be a feature of any new national strategies, plans or agreements in road safety.
Measure, review and adjust
The NRSS provides a significant set of safety performance indicators. These are generally disaggregated final outcome measures – for example, different users killed, or crashes on road types. There are very few intermediate outcome measures – for example percentage of new vehicles purchased with five star ANCAP ratings – which can be more directly linked to specific actions and final outcomes. It is therefore unclear whether current adverse trends are due to the strategic actions not being achieved or whether the actions are being achieved but they are either ineffective or insufficient.
All measures should be able to be linked to strategies and actions that will drive a change in that area. However, not all do this. For example, The average age of the Australian vehicle fleet is shown as currently 10.1 years. While this is a key metric in determining the speed at which technological improvements can influence the greatest number of crashes, the NRSS contains no actions to reduce this. The Strategy states that there is an expected “reduction in the average fleet age in Australia” and the original document stated that incentives for faster fleet turnover would be investigated. However, there are currently no further actions to address this. To expect improvements in outcomes, while taking no action, is wishful thinking, not strategic planning.
The strategy development process
These issues are not unique to the NRSS and can be found in jurisdictional strategies. Although carried out with the best intentions, the process of developing, approving and publishing these strategies can lead to mediocrity, particularly if ambition requires commitments that individuals are not empowered to give. The result is wordsmithing to relay the intent, while providing wriggle room to allow actions to be interpreted later on as local constraints demand.
Despite the common attribution, it was probably not Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome. But the principle is sound: we keep developing strategies in the same way and expect each one to be much more effective than the last.
A better process can produce a better strategy. More importantly, the strategy development process itself should be seen as a catalyst for change in attitudes about road safety and what we as a society are willing to do to achieve a safe road traffic system. This is the subject of the final post in this series.