Increasing road deaths taking their toll
Jeanette is far from alone in her grief. At a time when both cars and roads are safer than they have ever been, the number of people killed on Victoria’s roads spiked in 2019 to 263 – 50 more than the previous year. (Although road deaths eased in the second half of 2019, the annual toll was still the highest since 2016.)
The death toll came as a shocking reality check after decades of fairly constant decline in road fatalities. In 1970, the year compulsory seatbelts were introduced, 1061 people died on Victorian roads. By 2018, despite a threefold increase in registered motor vehicles, the number of people killed had dropped to 213, the lowest since records began. But early last year road deaths began to climb. By early May the road toll was 50 per cent higher than for the same period in 2018.
The usual fatalism that sadly accompanies road toll reports turned to shock. The state government called a road safety summit bringing together Victoria Police, the Transport Accident Commission, VicRoads, RACV and other experts to address the emerging crisis. Next came a series of eight regional community forums across the state to try to understand why country drivers and country roads are so heavily represented in the death toll (around 50 per cent of fatal crashes involve country drivers on regional roads).
Then, in July, the government announced a parliamentary inquiry to consider, among other things, the adequacy of current drug and alcohol testing, the impact of smart phones on driver distraction, speed management and enforcement and the role of road standards and maintenance.
The experts agree that all those elements: – drugs and alcohol, driver distraction, speed and road conditions – play a role in road deaths, but they are at a loss to explain the sudden spike, let alone how to ensure it never happens again.
TAC’s Lead Director Road Safety Samantha Cockfield says it is not unexpected to see spikes and troughs when looking at the road toll over time and that the underlying reasons for the majority of fatal crashes are quite well understood. “We know how the crashes are happening and on the whole why,” she says. “We also know the actions we to need to take to address most of the fatalities on Victorian roads. But we’re not perfect. We don’t yet have all the answers and must continue to invest in ways of tackling the problem.”
People will always make mistakes, but a mistake shouldn’t cost someone their life... So why do so many people accept death on our roads as inevitable?
What does seem beyond doubt is that there is no room for complacency. “People will always make mistakes, but a mistake shouldn’t cost someone their life,” says Emily McLean, RACV’s senior engineer of roads and traffic. She notes that in the workplace, fatalities and serious injuries are not considered an acceptable cost of doing business. “So why do so many people accept death on our roads as inevitable?”
Emily has spearheaded the RACV’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry, calling for an urgent review of speed limits on country roads, where so many fatal crashes occur, and for upgrades to safety infrastructure on major highways and other high-traffic roads.
“Simple and affordable measures can help make our roads safer,” Emily says. “In country areas, this means rumble strips on the edge of the lane to prevent run-off road crashes, sealed shoulders to allow time for a driver to recover if they do leave their lane, and wire-rope barriers along the centre and side of roads to prevent them hitting a tree, pole or another vehicle.”
This year the government has announced plans to install 1600 kilometres of rumble strip line-markings and 340 kilometres of new safety barriers on the state’s roads, adding to the more than 2300 kilometres of safety barriers already installed. But while the government says these measures have had a dramatic impact, more than halving the number of fatalities and serious injuries on stretches where they are in place, Emily McLean says it is simply not viable to upgrade every kilometre of secondary road across the state.
“At the current rate of funding we estimate it would take over 1000 years to upgrade every road to an acceptable safety standard – or we could act immediately to make roads safer by reviewing speed limits.”