Six radical ideas to cut Victoria’s road toll

Police offers and coroner walking towards a firetruck in a tunnel

Sue Hewitt

Posted March 30, 2021


From million-dollar speeding fines to in-car alcohol detectors, countries around the world are adopting bold initiatives to reduce deaths on their roads.

Would the prospect of a $1.5 million fine deter you from speeding? That’s the amount one multi-millionaire was fined in Switzerland after being clocked driving at 300kmh – 170kmh over the speed limit. Switzerland is just one of several European countries that calculate speeding fines according to the offender’s bank balance.

It’s a novel approach designed to deter the very wealthy from flouting the road rules, and a prime example of the bold initiatives some countries are adopting in an effort to reduce deaths and serious injuries on their roads.

Victoria, of course, has a proud history as a trailblazer in road safety, dating back to 1970 when it became the first jurisdiction in the world to introduce mandatory seatbelt laws. That year, a record 1061 people lost their lives on Victoria’s roads. 

While the number of road deaths has dropped dramatically since then, thanks to the introduction of successive safety measures including random blood-alcohol tests (1976) and electronic stability control in all new cars (2011), fatal and serious road accidents still devastate hundreds of Victorian families each year. 

Since 2016, an average of 248 people have died on the state’s roads annually, and for every one of those fatalities, it is estimated that another 30 people sustained life-changing injuries.  

Car flipping through the air

Photo: Getty


 

So what can be done to reduce these terrible numbers? RACV senior safety policy adviser Elvira Lazar says Victorian policy makers must think big and consider necessary but difficult decisions when it comes to saving lives on our roads. “Victoria has been a world leader in road safety, but there is also much we can learn from what other countries are doing,” she says.

With this in mind, here are six bold initiatives from overseas that could help save lives on our roads.

 


Six bold road safety ideas that could save lives
 

Speeding fines based on income

Along with Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and France have all introduced income-based traffic fines to stop people with money to burn flouting road laws. 

Before the speeding millionaire incurred his eye-watering fine in Switzerland in 2010, the previous record was in Finland in 2002 when a company executive was ordered to pay 116,000 euros (almost $180,000) after riding his motorbike at 75kmh in a 50kmh zone. In Victoria, where all fines are equal regardless of your wealth, these offenders would have been fined $454 and had their licence suspended for three months.  

Does it work? 

The Australia Institute, which has advocated for income-based speeding fines here, says although the system would make fines more socially equitable, it concedes that “academic studies as a whole show a moderate, marginal or negligible deterrent effect on traffic fines”. 

Would it work here?  

The head of Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC), Samantha Cockfield, is similarly sceptical. She says the most effective speeding deterrent in Victoria is not just fines but the loss of demerit points leading to licence suspension – which starts at three months for driving at 25kmh above the speed limit, to a year for 45kmh over the limit. Even motorists with low-level speed offences will have their licence suspended if they’re repeat offenders, as demerit-point losses are cumulative over a given period, normally 12 points over three years.

Alcohol-testing boom gates

Sweden has some of the strictest drink-driving laws in Europe, but every year three million vehicles, including many trucks, arrive by ferry at its ports from countries with far more lenient drink-driving rules and cheaper alcohol. Swedish authorities found the drink-driving rate around its ports was three times the nation’s average.  

They introduced ‘alco-gates’ – boom gates with a built-in breathalyser which physically stop a driver leaving if they are over the limit. They act as a sobriety checkpoint before drivers get on Sweden’s roads. It was trialled in the port of Gothenburg in 2013, then in Stockholm in 2014. 

Does it work? 

The Swedes believe so. After the Gothenburg and Stockholm trials, Swedish authorities ordered the rollout of alco-gates across all Swedish ports in 2019. They found the gates cause little inconvenience to travellers, as it takes disembarking drivers just 30 seconds to test themselves, yet measurably reduce drink-driving offences around ports. 

Would it work here?  

It’s already on the cards in Victoria. The TAC is investigating trialling alco-gates at selected Victorian venues or events, like racing clubs, using the Swedish technology. 

Elvira Lazar says alcohol is a factor in about one-fifth of Victoria’s fatal crashes. “Trialling the alco-gates at popular licensed venues has the potential to identify drivers over the limit before they get on the road and, importantly, before they put themselves and others in danger,” she says. 

 

Man driving with a bottle in his hand

Road-safety experts are developing a new technology that enables cars to automatically detect if a driver is drunk without them having to physically do a breath-test. Photo: Getty


 

Passive alcohol detectors in cars 

In the US state of Virginia, road-safety experts found that more than 7000 crashes in the state in 2019 were related to drink driving, resulting in more than 250 deaths and more than 4000 serious injuries. 

Road-safety experts are developing a new technology that enables cars to automatically detect if a driver is drunk without them having to physically do a breath-test. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program is first-of-its-kind technology. An in-car sensor automatically detects if a driver has a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) above the legal limit by sensing their breath in the cabin. If the driver is over the limit, the system won’t allow the car to move.  

Does it work? 

There are no definite results yet. Still in development, the prototype sensors are being tested in a transport company’s fleet vehicles. The aim is to develop an integrated system that can be offered as a safety option in new vehicles, similar to lane-departure warning systems. 

Would it work here?  

The TAC has just imported a demonstration car fitted with DADSS to showcase the technology to state and federal governments, fleet owners and others. TAC’s Samantha Cockfield says the technology has the potential to stop drivers offending before they put themselves and other road users at risk. It could benefit workplaces that demand a zero blood-alcohol level in fleet drivers. 

RACV’s Elvira says trialling passive alcohol detection has great potential to reduce road trauma. “If successful, it means technology will decide if a driver is alcohol impaired and take the guesswork out of whether someone can safely drive,” she says.  

Mandatory car-safety technologies 

Car manufacturers already offer many road-safety systems that are already or about to be made mandatory in Europe and elsewhere, but not in Australia. For example, an onboard sensor that recognises if a driver is drowsy, distracted or intoxicated will soon be mandatory in Europe, while in the US there has long been a mandatory ‘black box’ in new cars which tells accident investigators the speed of vehicles involved in a crash.  

Does it work? 

Elvira says in-built vehicle-safety features help save lives. This has been recognised by the new European General Safety Regulation (GSR), which came into effect in January 2020, and requires that a raft of safety systems be fitted to all new models from July 2022 and to all new vehicles from July 2024. The systems mandated by the GSR include: driver-distraction and fatigue-detection systems, intelligent speed assist to keep drivers within the speed limit, emergency stop signal which indicates to following drivers that your car is braking heavily, reversing cameras and more. 

Would it work here?  

RACV’s senior engineer for vehicles, Nicholas Platt, says the new European GSR amounts to one of the most significant single changes in vehicle safety regulations in history, perhaps only rivalled by Australia’s introduction of the Australian Design Rules (ADR) in 1969. 

“Since there is no local vehicle manufacturing industry in Australia, there is no reason why most of these promising technologies shouldn’t be made compulsory in Australia, like they will be in Europe,” he says. 

 

Speed cameras in front of a partly cloudy sky

Photo: Getty


 

Lower blood-alcohol limits for drivers

Drink driving is a global problem. As a leader in the fight against it, Sweden introduced its 0.02 Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) laws in the late 1990s, and has been followed by Poland and China. Some European countries including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania have a zero blood-alcohol limit for drivers.  

Does it work? 

In Sweden alone, the evidence is that low blood-alcohol limits for drivers does cut drink driving. In a submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the state’s road toll, Dr Matts-Ake Belin, of the Swedish Transport Administration’s Vision Zero [road toll] Academy, cited research showing that 99.8 per cent of drivers randomly breath-tested were under Sweden’s 0.02 limit and only two in every 1000 were over the limit. 

Would it work here?  

TAC’s chief Samantha Cockfield says governments should think about lowering the BAC limits to 0.02 or zero because it takes away temptation to drink. She says many drivers may think they can have one or two drinks and keep under the current .05 limit, but once they start drinking will over-indulge. A 0.02 or zero BAC will make them think twice before raising their first glass.  

Separated cycling superhighways

In London, a city overwhelmed by traffic congestion, transport planners have for the past decade focused on creating dedicated cycling corridors with separated bike lanes along key routes from the outer suburbs to the city centre. As well as encouraging commuters to ride instead of adding to the city’s gridlock in their car, the separated bike lanes have also been proven to decrease fatalities and serious injuries. The Transport for London authority has committed to completing a network of 450 kilometres of dedicated, segregated ‘cycleways’ by 2024. And last year the government announced an ambitious two-billion pound plan to transform British cycling culture by creating thousands of kilometres of kerb-protected cycleways across the country, introducing bike-friendly road rules and even prescribing bikes through the National Health Service. 

Does it work? 

Cycling superhighways are a great idea, says Jerome Carslake, director of the National Road Safety Partnership Program at Monash University’s Accident Research Centre. He says separating different road users through safe infrastructure is always the best option to protect vulnerable road users. He says while London road users generally have a more positive attitude to each other, Victorian authorities need to work on helping improve attitudes, awareness and respect.

Elvira Lazar says research has shown more people would cycle if they had access to safer cycling infrastructure. She says the need to provide a safer environment for bike riders is even more pressing as our cities adjust to a post-COVID world, and commuters look for alternatives to public transport.  

Would it work here?  

RACV has long advocated for the establishment of a network of cycling superhighways across Melbourne and its recommendation for a network of 17 dedicated cycling corridors to connect bike riders to major activity centres including the CBD, has been endorsed by Infrastructure Australia (IA), the nation's independent infrastructure adviser.

The good news is that the boom in cycling triggered by the pandemic and the need to avert a congestion crisis has sparked several bike-safety initiatives here, including the TAC’s $100 million Safer Cyclists and Pedestrian Fund and a number of pop-up segregated cycling lanes in the City of Melbourne. Meanwhile VicRoads has committed to installing 100 kilometres of new and improved bike routes, including pop-up separated bike lanes, across inner-Melbourne suburbs in the local government areas of Maribyrnong, Moonee Valley, Moreland, Darebin, Yarra, Stonnington and Port Phillip.


More news