TONY SMITH. The unacceptable road toll.

Dec 18, 2018

We should not accept that it is inevitable that people will die on our roads. While drivers must behave responsibly, governments need to take actions which might seem radical in a society obsessed with cars. 

At time of writing there had been 335 deaths on New South Wales roads in 2018. There were also over 11,000 injuries. While these numbers were down on comparable figures for 2017, the road safety motto ‘Toward Zero’ remains an indictment of weak government action in this vital area.

A recent government advertising campaign should be effective in addressing driver complacency. In one ad, a man is asked whether the road toll is acceptable. On replying ‘no’ he is asked how many would be acceptable. He shrugs and answers ’70?’  Then, 70 people come into view and he remarks ‘They’re my family’. He quickly revises his opinion to ‘zero’.

This ad should be effective because it personalises the problem. It should alarm people who had not cared about the road toll because it had not touched them. It should also make people determined to drive responsibly in order to avoid contributing to the road toll. A similar approach has been taken in another ad in which a tired workman rolls his vehicle. The ad points out that the people dying are our mates. They are us.

While the zero acceptability idea is correct ethically, appeals to motorists alone are not action enough. Governments seem to think that they can do no more and that current figures are inevitable – hence, the shifting of responsibility onto drivers. Drivers do share the responsibility for road safety, but many factors are beyond their control. For example, some 50 fatalities have involved trucks and it is unlikely that the driver of a family sedan could avoid a collision when a heavy vehicle suddenly loses control.

There is widespread agreement that road conditions are a significant factor in safety. While we might be inclined to think of road conditions as the surface and the bends and slopes, drivers need to adjust to conditions, which can include rain. On the Bell Line of road there is an indicator which reduces the speed limit in wet periods. Elsewhere, there is advice to wipe off speed in the wet. and warnings about icy roads.

A special road condition is the stress placed on drivers over the holiday period. There is pressure to arrive at holiday destinations for family celebrations or for tight holiday bookings along the coast. While the government has also run ads warning against dying for a deadline, it has not thought fit to alter speed limits for the holiday period. There are increased penalties for drivers caught speeding, failing to wear seat belts, using phones or DUI during peak periods, but police officers often express dismay at the numbers of drivers apprehended taking such risks.

Given that failure to handle speed and driving while fatigued will be factors in many road deaths over the holiday period, the government should take urgent action to ameliorate the road conditions. It could do this by immediately reducing the speed limit on major routes by 10 kph. No driver should calculate travelling times using an assumption that maximum speeds will be achieved. It could also make stops at driver reviver stations mandatory, maybe even insisting that drivers collect signatures along the way. One letter to the press pointed out that we continue to drive towards each other at high speeds in dark coloured cars on dark coloured roads. Perhaps for peak problem periods we should all be obliged to use headlights. And if all that seems too radical, we could all live with a ban on overtaking, which relies on high speeds.

The road toll takes many more lives than terrorism, and politicians are prepared to stare down protests about individual rights in the cause of combating terrorism. They are also happy to commit huge slices of budgets to the cause. No government can morally balance lives lost on our roads against budget restrictions. If employing more police officers and placing more marked vehicles on the roads were to save one life, no government can morally refuse to do so.

Only a zero road toll is acceptable. We should agree that zero is possible and practical. While governments might want us all to accept that standard as the best ethical goal for driver behaviour, only they have the power to enforce restrictions which could have the practical effect of eliminating road deaths altogether. Their failure to take more drastic action in this area of responsibility suggests that they find some other number above zero ‘acceptable’, that they rely on the slightest reduction in the road toll as an indication that it is heading ‘Towards Zero’. Any government feeling satisfied with such a dubious achievement smacks of a distinct failure of leadership. It is time to drop the ‘Toward’ from the motto and to focus on the ‘Zero’.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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