Properly analysed, road death toll figures demonstrate there is an extraordinary lack of debate about the real reasons behind fatalities and injuries in crashes. An examination of the figures shows that with all the speed and red light cameras, anti-alcohol measures, vehicle safety, improvements, road upgrades, street lighting and big spending on creative advertising over the past five years, the death toll has largely plateaued. Over that period total national vehicle registrations (adjusted for deregistered vehicles) have risen from 13.162 million (10.365 million of them passenger vehicles) to just over 14.8 million (11.51 million passenger vehicles). During 2007, an average of 9200 new (and safer) vehicles came on to the roads every month.
Figures from the federal Australian Transport Safety Bureau show that for several years state authorities have set the Christmas-New Year holiday period at 13 days (in Victoria in 2007 it began at midnight on December 20 and ended at midnight on January4). In 2006, the last full year for which ATSB figures are available, 62 people died: drivers, passengers, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. That represented an average of 4.7deaths a day. The same figures show that for the entire year, deaths averaged 4.38 a day and the most lethal weekly period year-long is Friday to Sunday, when there is an average of 5.4 deaths a day. For the five days of Easter 2007, there were an average of five deaths a day.
It shows during holiday periods roads are no more dangerous than on the average weekday, and certainly safer than during normal weekends. And this is despite the diluting holiday logistics of extra distances covered, heavier traffic, bigger passenger loads, unroadworthy vehicles, drivers not used to distance driving, greater stress, more distractions and increased alcohol consumption.
All ordinary fatal crashes (can there be such a thing?) are attended by local police, not an elite crash investigation unit. So the death of a lone driver on a straight country road against a tree, in the absence of any obvious evidence of alcohol, drugs, another vehicle or braking marks, leads police to tick the box marked speed. Never mind that it could be caused by 30,000km-old windscreen wiper blades crazing the windscreen, bald tyres, scored brake discs, no seatbelts or even a huntsman spider falling into the driver’s lap from a sun visor.
Excessive speed is a simple reason commonly cited to explain a very complex problem. There is no single reason for a crash. Every crash is the result of a series of tumblers falling in the wrong sequence. Multiple-death crashes are extremely rare occurrences. However, no official will admit that factors such as vehicle roadworthiness, road engineering or maintenance, weather, or even untimely text messaging could be significant factors.
It reinforces the common feeling that if an act is made illegal, it will fix things. However, people will always ignore what they perceive as bad or unenforceable laws: tailgating, failure to keep left, the use of mobile phones and (in some states) the suspension of dangly objects from the rear vision mirror.
In May 2005, the South Australian Government announced it would spend $35.6 million of its road safety budget of $60 million on 50 new red light intersection cameras, adding to the 12 existing cameras that in their first year of operation in 2004 generated $11 million in revenue. Yet the Government’s official figures showed that over the previous eight years, disobeying traffic lights had caused only 1.34per cent of fatal crashes.
And, based on the statistics, that “something serious” could well be understanding that the huge emphasis on speeding and drink driving may even be counterproductive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that 95 per cent of people don’t exceed speed limits and even fewer drink and drive. So their belief is that if they avoid those offences, they don’t have to pay much more attention to being safe or driving carefully.