Mistakes happen, deaths don’t have to

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MUARC director Professor Jude Charlton
MUARC director Professor Jude Charlton

The building, among all the others on Monash University’s Clayton campus, is squat and nondescript. There is no obvious clue that the people inside are intensely interested in your potential death.

Or the better news that they are equally as intent on trying to prevent that happening.

For 30 years, the researchers of the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) have been testing everything from seat belts to the caps on bottles of poison, from the very latest in vehicle safety technology to swimming-pool fences. The centre’s job is simple: to provide independent, scientific evidence that all the technologies, products, systems, policies and infrastructure designed to keep us safe actually work. 

The centre was born from necessity, three decades ago – on June 28, 1987 to be exact. It was a year bookended by Australia’s first-ever mobile phone call (February) and Kylie Minogue scoring her first international hit with ‘I should be so lucky’ (December) but it was also a time when Victoria’s road toll hovered around 700 deaths per year, and politicians, academics and health professionals were looking for answers.

A road toll on the rise

It wasn’t like nobody was trying to stop the carnage. Seat belts had been made compulsory in 1970 (road toll: 1061 that year). Random breath testing had been introduced in 1976 (road toll: 938) and then red-light cameras began snapping in 1983 (664 deaths). Yet the road toll had risen steadily for four years since, even despite early-model mobile speed cameras being introduced two years before. 

The problem was nobody really knew, scientifically and definitely, whether any of these measures worked. Peter Vulcan, from the Road Traffic Authority (now VicRoads), came up with a suggestion. Teaming with senior academics from Monash University, he pushed for an independent centre of investigation, a place to research existing and future tactics, strategies and technologies to reduce the road toll. 

‘There was so much to do’

He became founding director and the Monash University Accident Research Centre was formed. 

As MUARC’s current director, Professor Jude Charlton, explains: “They wanted this new research entity to provide independent evidence into the road safety countermeasures and there was so much to do. Capacity was more important than politics. It started from very small beginnings and started with a relatively modest budget.

 “What they said was: let’s give it a go for three years and see where we are at the end of that. I don’t think anybody really imagined it was going to be as successful and grow as much as it did.”

The success was surprisingly swift. MUARC was able to scientifically prove that the enforcement measures then in place, when mixed with mass-media awareness campaigns, definitely were having a positive effect on the driving behaviours of Victorians. New partners came on board, such as Victoria Police, the Australian Road Research Board, the newly formed Traffic Accident Commission and RACV, which funded a new Chair in Road Safety. The Department of Health asked for assistance with charting, tracking and monitoring injuries in the wider community, from older people falling, to tractors rolling over on farms, and so new funding began to flow for non-road research. The centre was on its way.

Starting with the big picture

Today’s MUARC works on evolving two or three-year plans, where researchers and PhD students submit proposals for potential study to meetings of the base stakeholders, such as Victoria Police, TAC, the Department of Justice, VicRoads, the Department of Health, and RACV. Big-picture issues are the starting point, whether on the roads or in the wider world. Right now, a PhD student is conducting research into the rise of autonomous cars, and specifically at what point or in which situation should the human sitting in the driver’s seat resume control of the vehicle? Other MUARC researchers are working with trucking industry partners and technology experts to explore methods to monitor fatigue and distraction among drivers. 

In July, MUARC released figures showing 86 per cent of Victorian drivers surveyed admitted to expressing anger on the road, and 18 per cent to actually chasing another driver, sparking a needed debate about driving culture.

From drug drivers to car seats

Other researchers are involved in a continuing study of older people and road accidents, not only for ageing drivers but also pedestrians. Meanwhile, studies are examining drugs and driving, used-car safety ratings, and bicycle safety, among other work progressing in-car safety technologies and public awareness strategies. Jude laughs that a small project looking at child safety seats – flicked her way when she started in the year 2000 and presented by her then-boss as a small side project that wouldn’t take her long – is still going. 

She wouldn’t have it any other way. That study, like so much of MUARC’s work, could very well save lives.

MUARC: not just road safety

MUARC examines road safety as well as many other areas of workplace and home and community safety. 

One of the world’s most comprehensive injury prevention research institutions, it has World Health Organisation status as a Collaborating Centre for Violence and Injury Prevention. 

MUARC provides leadership and strategic training for international senior executives in safety governance and policy, while also working with many of Monash University’s faculties on everything from safer design and engineering to building resilience within communities. 

MUARC director Professor Jude Charlton thinks the Towards Zero strategy embraced by Victoria’s road safety partners can be applied across other dangerous areas of life, “so that we can live in a world that doesn’t have injures related to workplace, roads or things that happen in the home or community”.

“How do we do that? Much more of the same. We have, in Safe Systems, a formula that really works. The whole basis of Safe Systems is that you acknowledge that humans actually do make errors, we do, so it’s about designing the system so that even if people do make a mistake, they’re not going to kill themselves or have a serious injury. 

“It won’t necessarily stop accidents from happening but with a wire rope barrier down the middle of the highway, for example, the people who crash into it aren’t dead. Instead they pull up on the side of the road and say what happened there?’”

VISIT: monash.edu/muarc

Written by Nick Place
September 15, 2017